Week 9: Bair's Top 10 Raiders, Steelers to watch
Top 10 to watch
The Raiders haven’t reached their destination on the road to relevance, but they can see it on the horizon. A victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Heinz Field would accelerate that pace and put them near pole position in the AFC’s wild-card race. The Steelers won’t let the Raiders slam on the gas. This matchup of potent offenses could lead to a shootout, meaning the defense that makes the most plays could secure victory in a crucial matchup between these long-standing rivals.
10) RB Taiwan Jones, Raiders
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave loves getting this speed demon involved on offense, normally to the tune of 3-6 touches per game. As we saw with Sunday’s 59-yard touchdown against the Jets, any play can turn into a big one. Jones is the team’s kick returner, and Musgrave said he likes to set of return-like situations for Jones on offense, where he gets the ball with blockers all around, that gives him a chance to make people miss and reach open space, where no man is going to catch him.
9) WR Antonio Brown, Steelers
Brown should send quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a Christmas card this year. The speedy receiver was a forgotten man when Mike Vick was under center, and but Big Ben’s health brought Brown back to prominence. That connection pays huge dividends for the Steelers offense, and gives it a quick-strike capability. He leads the team with 718 receiving yards and has three touchdowns despite some games where he was invisible to backup quarterbacks. It’ll take solid coverage and safey help over the top for the Raiders to slow him down.
8) DL Mario Edwards Jr., Raiders
The second-round pick has flourished in a role expanded with the season-ending injury to Justin Tuck. Edwards Jr. has been a bully up front, brining power and physicality to proceedings from the interior line. He was expected to be solid against the run, but has been bullish getting after the passer as well. He has 13 tackles and half a sack in last three games since Tuck went down. The Raiders need him to maintain production, getting after Roethlisberger and corral shifty runner DeAngelo Williams.
7) DE Cam Heyward, Steelers
The Steelers get creative with their blitz, but a four-man rush will do when Heyward’s on his game. He’s a game-wrecker playing end in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defensive scheme, with only J.J. Watt playing better at that specific position. He has three sacks, five quarterback hits and 21 other pressures, with 20 of his 24 tackles coming near the line of scrimmage. The Raiders must account for him with double teams at times, and rely on excellent one-on-one play blocking him at others. Heyward can cramp an offense by himself if he isn’t contained.
6) C Rodney Hudson, Raiders
The high-priced free-agency signing has been worth every penny thus far to a Raiders offensive line ranked among the NFL’s best. Hudson is excellent arranging pre-snap blocking assignments and making adjustments on the fly, which should help quarterback Derek Carr deal with Pittsburgh’s creative blitz package. He’s also athletic enough to do what few other centers can, getting downfield to block for screens and pull like a guard. His versatility gives the Raiders flexibility on offense and adds an unpredictability to the blocking scheme.
5) RB DeAngelo Williams, Steelers
Le’Veon Bell is one of the NFL’s best, most productive running backs. He can’t just be replaced. Williams must fill in as best he can, and said this week he hopes the offense won’t change a bit with Bell out for the year with an MCL tear. That won’t happen, considering Bell was involved in nearly 50 percent of Steelers plays. Williams is a competent back with explosive qualities shown in Weeks 1-2, when Bell was suspended. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry and had three touchdowns to keep the running game going.
4) WR Michael Crabtree, Raiders
Rookie Amari Cooper headlines a dynamic group of skill players that has the Raiders offense going strong, but Crabtree is the steadying presence in an otherwise young group. He has been targeted nearly 70 times in seven games, and has been productive (12.1 avg) on passes reeled in. He’s ability to get open consistently and fight for yards after the catch helps the Raiders keep going with Cooper receives extra attention. Another strong performance is mandatory in a game that could require a lot of points to win.
3) QB Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
Big Ben is appropriately named. Roethlisberger stands 6-foot-5, 240 pounds and uses size to his advantage. He extends plays with his feet and stands tall draped in pressure, always looking for a downfield option to change a game. The Steelers missed him while he was sidelined four games, but is back healthy for this crucial game. He has completed 71 percent of his passes for 1,174 yards, five touchdowns and five picks. He has proven mistake-prone under pressure, which the Raiders must capitalize on to slow these Steelers down.
2) OLB/DE Khalil Mack, Raiders
The premier edge rusher has battled a hamstring strain during this practice week, but isn’t in jeopardy to miss Sunday’s game. That’s a good thing. It would be better for Oakland if he was unimpeded, because they need Mack to make, big-time, game-altering plays against a potent Steelers offense. The Raiders have played Mack from both edges and even some from interior gaps in recent games, trying to find areas the young talent can exploit. They need Mack to be a wrecking ball in this one, which is possible considering how long Roethlisberger is willing to hold on to the football.
1) S Charles Woodson, Raiders
Pittsburgh receivers have speed to burn, and can be difficult to cover one-on-one. Cornerbacks DJ Hayden and David Amerson might need to call in the cavalry occasionally over the top, which is where Woodson flies in to save the day. He’s done that several times this season, with an NFL best five interceptions snagged by jumping routes to pick meaningful passes. Another heroic moment or two could swing this game in the Raiders’ favor.