PITTSBURGH -- The Raiders defense has two main priorities entering every week.
Stop the run. Prevent big pass plays and never, ever let the ball get over your head.
They’ve achieved those ends during a two-game winning streak. They’d like to make it three on Sunday at the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Goal 1 should be a bit easier with Le’Veon Bell out for the year. The latter could be tough with Ben Roethlisberger under center.
He’s a real gamer, someone used to coming through in the clutch. He has a knack for extending plays before striking gold downfield, and is willing to exchange a big hit for a big play. He has a fleet of speedsters on the outside, with Antonio Brown and Martavius Bryant on the outside.
“That’s an all-week emphasis, because we know the kind of player he is,” Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio said. “He’s going to extend. There are going to be times in the game he’s going to extend. They’ve got receivers that are going to flat out fly. There are going to be guys streaking down the field. We’ve got to make sure we keep a body on a body and be prepared to defend the deep balls.”
Most of that responsibility falls to the secondary, which has to stick with receivers a bit longer than usual. Charles Woodson can be an asset in this regard, as a sideline-to-sideline ballhawk for high-flying volleys.
“You have to have great eyes, be really good with your feet, really good discipline and understand that this is the type of team that extends plays, so you can’t get too mesmerized with watching how awesome ‘Big Ben’ is,” defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said. “You have to cover your guy and I think that those are the things that we’re working on.”
These things would’ve have been an issue had the Raiders played Pittsburgh a few weeks ago. The Steelers lost Roethlisberger to a knee injury that sidelined him four weeks. The Steelers were 2-2 without him, but excited to welcome him back last week against the Cincinnati Bengals. He struggled upon return, with 265 yards a touchdown and three picks, not surprising considering his 2-5 record in his first game back from injury.
“I didn’t play as well as I wanted to,” Roethlisberger said. “But I’m not going to say it was because of rust or any other excuse.”
The Raiders are sure to see a better version Sunday at Heinz Field. He didn’t have a setback last week and isn’t on this week’s participation report. While Roethlisberger has had tremendous success during his decade-plus in the NFL, he has struggled against the Raiders. He has a 2-4 record against Oakland.
The Silver and Black can make it 2-5 with a strong defensive showing against the 6-foot-5, 240-pound signal caller who is tough to bring down. The veteran has proven vulnerable to an active pass rusher. Roethlisberger’s numbers under pressure have been subpar, with a 31.1 passer rating hampered by a 39.3 completion percentage and five interceptions.
“If you get after the quarterback, you can change the game,” edge rusher Khalil Mack said. “He’s a big guy, so you might have to rope tie him to bring him down. He’s a big, strong guy, but you have to put pressure on him and take him off his game whenever possible.”
A good running back is a quarterback’s best friend, and Roethlisberger certainly hopes DeAngelo Williams can pick up a void created by Bell’s injury. Bell was widely considered among the NFL’s best backs, was an excellent receiver out of the backfield and received heavy touches. Williams filled in for Bell during his two-game suspension to start the season and had 224 all purpose yards in that short span.
“It’s never easy losing a guy, especially a guy like that who’s one of the best in the business,” Roethlisberger said. “We feel for him and everything he has to go through, but we have to have faith that DeAngelo will step up and carry the load for us.
“He’s not Le’Veon and he’s not going to try to be Le’Veon, but he’s DeAngelo and he’s done it in this league for a while now and he’s done it at a high level. We have that confidence that he could do it, and he did it for us. We have to believe and we do believe that he’ll do it again.”