The Pittsburgh Steelers hope to end their two-game losing streak this Sunday against the visiting and surging Oakland Raiders.
The Raiders (4-3) are playing their best football in years under head coach Jack Del Rio, coming off a 34-20 drubbing of the New York Jets. Oakland has won two straight and is currently right in the thick of the early playoff picture. A win over the Steelers would come in very handy when the wild card teams are determined at season's end.
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The Steelers are fortunate to be 4-4 considering the lengthy list of injuries and suspensions they've had to deal with. Ben Roethlisberger just returned on Sunday from a four-game absence, but then star running back Le'Veon Bell goes down for the season less than two quarters later. Pittsburgh still has enough on paper to make a playoff run, but falling below the .500 mark would sting in a game that could end up very important when it comes to tiebreakers at the end of the season.
Here are three keys to the game for both the Raiders and Steelers:
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1. Actually sack Ben Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger is still shaking off the rust from a few weeks on the sidelines and took three sacks in a loss last weekend. He'll set up behind a line without its regular left tackle (Kelvin Beachum) and center (Maurkice Pouncey). So the Raiders have no excuse; they've got to play better than the league's 20th-best sacking defense and bring "Big Ben" down.
2. Treat DeAngelo Williams just like Le'Veon Bell
Pittsburgh's run game shouldn't suffer much without their top running back. Why? Because Williams (204 yards, 3 TD) was just as effective for them when Bell served his suspension earlier. The Steelers put 64 points with Williams in for those two weeks. Oakland better not alter their defensive approach just because Bell is out.
3. Finish drives with six points, not three
Pittsburgh's defense has been sneaky good at keeping scores low; they're the only team to hold the Patriots under 30 points in 2015. Carr and Co. will have to be as dialed in as they were vs. the Jets last weekend. Michael Crabtree has been a favorite target of Carr's on third downs, and that wil llikely be the case again in this matchup. Raiders fans should hope Sebastian Janikowski's field goal tries stay low in this one. It has the makings of a shootout.
1. Get an early jump
Early afternoon starts are rarely friendly for West Coast teams as their body clocks are still three hours behind. The Raiders' Week 3 win in Cleveland was their first in the Eastern time zone since 2009. The Steelers need to come out strong as they did last week to make Oakland play catchup the rest of the way against their improving defense.
2. Shake off the rust
While Roethlisberger was efficient in the short passing game in his return against Cincinnati, he was just 3 of 13 (23 percent) on passes of 15 yards or more with three interceptions. With another week of practice under his belt, Roethlisberger's timing and accuracy will need to be better or Charles Woodson will be looking to add to his league-leading interception total of five.
3. Give Villanueva some help
New left tackle Alejandro Villanueva held his own for the most part last week against Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, but his hands will be more than full with the very dangerous Khalil Mack. Whether its left guard Ramon Foster, a chip from a tight end or an extra blocker in the backfield, the Steelers need to keep the speedy Mack as far away as possible from Roethlisberger, who is still not at full speed from his knee injury.