Pittsburgh is 1-1 and is coming off a dominating win over the New York Jets at home. The team coming into the Bay Area is vastly different than the one which played in the Super Bowl two years ago. While all the key pieces are still in black and gold, the Steelers have lost numerous cogs in the machine including Hines Ward and Trai Essex.
The offense is more reliant on the passing game than in years past, especially with starting running back Rashard Mendenhall still recovering from a knee injury. Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer have tried to pick up the slack, but neither is averaging 3.5 yards per carry or more than 40 yards per game. Redman has the lone rushing touchdown, but the Steelers are still averaging just more than 70 yards on the ground for the first two games.
In the air, Ben Roethlisberger has lit up the sky with his passing. He has 520 yards and is completing about 65 percent of his passes while tossing four touchdowns and just a single interception. Having Mike Wallace back from a holdout has helped and the pair have connected on nine of the 11 times Roethlisberger has looked in Wallace’s direction. Wallace has 111 yards and two touchdown catches, but only one play of more than 20 yards. Meanwhile on the opposite side, Antonio Brown has filled in as the number two receiver with a team-high 11 catches and 153 yards. However, Brown has three plays of more than 20 yards despite no touchdown receptions. Roethlisberger has continued his good connection with tight end Heath Miller, who has the other two touchdown catches among his seven receptions through two games.
Age has started taking its toll on the vaunted Pittsburgh defense and two of its stars are unlikely to play Sunday. James Harrison has not practiced this week and is officially listed as questionable to play thanks to a knee injury. If losing one of the top outside linebackers in the NFL was not enough, the Steelers will most likely also be without the services of safety Troy Polamalu, who is trying to work back from a calf injury. It is more likely Polamalu plays than Harrison, but without any guarantees Pittsburgh needs to continue to get good play from the rest of its defense.
One player who has taken full advantage of the opportunity is inside linebacker Larry Foote who leads the team with 16 tackles this season including 13 solo tackles. LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons have also played extremely well at linebacker and the massive defensive line of Dick Lebeau’s 3-4 scheme has also elevated its play. Even without Polamalu, the Pittsburgh secondary is no joke with Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor leading the defensive backfield. Even though having Harrison and Polamalu would be a big help, the Steelers’ defense should be just fine against Oakland.
In the kicking game, Pittsburgh has a trusty kicker in Shaun Suisham, who has hit all four of his field goals this season, and punter Drew Butler. This is one aspect of the game Pittsburgh could improve on and Butler is averaging roughly 43 yards per punt, with a net below 40 yards. He has put four punts inside the 20-yard line with no touchbacks, which could be a major factor in the game, given the Raiders’ struggles in their own territory.
Stay tuned tomorrow, when we compare the two teams’ units and see who is better position group by position group.