STEELERS PREGAME STRETCH: Back to black?

Desperately needing a win, Pittsburgh heads to a place they almost always lose

WEEK 14

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (7-4-1) VS. OAKLAND RAIDERS (2-10)

FOX, SUNDAY, 4:25 P.M., OAKLAND ALAMEDA COLISEUM, 63,132

Last week in a nutshell

Headline: ZONED OUT / The injury-hampered Steelers started the game against the Chargers with a losing game defensive game plan and finished it that way, never adjusting after Los Angeles exploited Pittsburgh’s zone look to match stud Keenan Allen up with a linebacker on play after play after play, from the game’s first play until it’s last decisive third down. The strategic flop was egregious enough that it allowed LA to turn around a 16-point second half deficit and win at the wire, 33-30.

This week’s announcers: Thom Brennaman and Chris Spielman. Obviously, we don’t hear the FOX announcers very frequently, but the last time we had Brennaman on a Steelers game, he was not good in terms of making a plethora of mistakes and miscalls. We all should be pretty familiar with Spielman from his decade plus doing college football and we all know he is terrible. All in all, sounds like a terrible afternoon of broadcasting. Information courtesy www.the506.com.

Weather – or not: Sun giving way to clouds, rain arriving. This bears watching. A three-day rainstorm is headed for northern Cali and right now it looks like it will miss this game, but weather people have been known to be wrong. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Ron Torbert. Wow, this is Torbert’s fifth year already as a referee. Steelers fans should be happy to see him, too, as the team is 6-0 in game in which he’s donned the white hat. This crew is a low-end penalty unit (third week in a row for one of those), averaging 11 penalties and 99 yards assessed per game against league averages of 14 and 114. We’re know we’re not breaking new ground in pointing out last week’s Bill Vinovich-led crew illustrated everything that’s wrong with NFL officiating right now. First of all, they racked up 13 flags for 139 yards with probably half of those infractions having nothing to do with the outcome of a play. Then, they missed two huge and obvious infractions directly at the point of attack on plays where the Chargers scored. This is where it’s becoming obvious that re-training of officials is needed. They’re calling the game like they were taught when they became officials a decade ago or more and the game has changed dramatically and left them behind. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com.

The last time: The Steelers won a 38-35 shootout at Heinz Field in November 2015 with Chris Boswell’s field goal on the game’s penultimate play. The Raiders had rallied to erase a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter as Derek Carr’s third TD pass of the game knotted the score with 1:15 left. The game DeAngelo Williams’ best as a member of the Steelers with 170 yards and two TDs. The Raiders have won four of the past six meeting between the teams, including the last two in Oakland in 2012 and 2013.

The line: Pittsburgh -11/51.5. Smarts say: My gosh, this is free money. The Steelers shouldn’t be double digit favorites against anyone. They never play well on west coast. Mike Tomlin teams are 2-7 against the spread as double-digit favorites. We could go on, but really, this is insane. The spread and O/U would come together for something like 31-20 Pittsburgh. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 2nd passing, 29th rushing, 4th scoring (28.8 ppg), 4th sacks allowed (18)

OAK defense, 14th passing, 13th rushing, 31st scoring (31.6 ppg), 32nd sacks (10)

When the Chargers have the ball:

OAK offense, 15th passing, 22nd rushing, 29th scoring (18.3 ppg), 28th sacks allowed (39)

PIT defense, 8th passing, 9th rushing, 16th scoring (23.5 ppg), 1st sacks (41)

Takeaway/Giveaway: OAK 12/17 -5 (22nd in league); PIT 12/20 -8 (26th in league)

Strength of schedule (games played so far): OAK .532; PIT .507

So…: The sack differentials jump off the page. The Steelers sack the quarterback a lot and the Raiders don’t protect their quarterback well. The Steelers protect their QB well and the Raiders don’t pressure opponents. The Steelers MUST take advantage here to win because the Raiders usually are killed by their own dumb mistakes. The Steelers, however, make more of those mistakes. Information courtesy www.nfl.comand www.espn.com.

On the spot:

Pittsburgh: Keith Butler

Why: Rarely is a defensive coordinate whose team leads the league in sacks on such a hot seat, but after another game with no meaningful takeaways coupled with a disastrous defensive gameplan that allowed the only players on the Chargers offense who could beat the Steelers to beat them, Butler’s toes have to be a bit toasty. The Raiders have a quarterback who was in the MVP conversation last year and certainly have seen a lot of film this week about how Pittsburgh’s defense can be had.

Oakland: Derek Carr

Why: Chuckie and the rest of his band of merry men are heading to Vegas next year, but whether Carr will be the quarterback there is still largely in doubt. Gruden’s fickleness when it comes to QBs is legendary and there is a potential out in Carr’s franchise QB deal that would allow Oakland to trade him after this season. So, is Carr playing out the string this season to try and impress his current coach or his potential new coach?

Key matchups:

Raiders TE Jared Cook vs. Whoever The Steelers Use To Try To Cover Him. Why: Cook, the 10th year TE familiar to Steelers fans from his days with the Titans, is having a monster year with 54 catches and six TDs, both career highs already through just 10 games. Just as with Keenan Allen las week, Cook is the one guy who gives the Raiders’ offense rhythm. The Steelers failed miserably trying to cover Allen, in part because injuries to Morgan Burnett and Cam Sutton, left them with the Sophie’s choice of using linebackers on Allen or throwing rooking Marcus Allen into the fire in his first game. So, it will be very interesting early to see who plays in the Steelers sub packages and how they cover cook, with an LB or one of the hybrid secondary players.

Quick hits:

+ My oh my has the Pittsburgh playoff picture changed with two tough losses over the past two weeks, coupled, of course, with two Baltimore wins, leaving the Steelers with just a half game lead in the division. Both teams face tough schedules down the stretch:

PIT: @OAK, NE, @NO, CIN

BAL: @KC, TB, @LAC, CLE

If the two teams match records in their final four games, Pittsburgh would win the division, but if the Ravens can manage three wins, that would put the Steelers in the precarious position of having to beat either New England or New Orleans to claim the title (along with holding serve against Oakland and the Bungles). In almost any scenario, the Ravens Saturday night game against the Chargers on Dec. 22 is one to circle.

At the same time, it’s become fairly certain that the winner of the AFC North will be the No. 4 seed as the Houston Texans have now won nine in a row and look like they could actually run the table, which they would need to do if they’re going to catch New England for the #2 spot and a bye:

HOU: IND, @NYJ, @PHI, JAX

NE: @MIA, @PIT, BUF, NYJ

The Chargers are pretty much locked in at #5 and it looks unlikely they could make a run at the Chiefs in the AFC West:

LA: CIN, @KC, BAL, @DEN

KC: BAL, LAC, @SEA, OAK

The Ravens hold down the #6 spot now at 7-5, one game ahead of Miami, Indianapolis, Denver and Tennessee.

MIA: NE, @MIN, JAX, @BUF

IND: @HOU, DAL, NYG, @TEN

DEN: @SF, CLE, @OAK, LAC

TEN: JAX, @NYG, WAS, IND

Denver would appear to have the best chance of that bunch to go 3-1 and get into the conversation for the No. 6 spot, or, at least, they did appear to have the best chance until they lost Emmanuel Sanders for the year with a practice injury this past week.

So, putting that all together in the pot and stirring, here’s how it shakes out for the Steelers, based on how they finish their final four games:

4-0: Finish 11-5-1 with a chance to leapfrog Houston for the #3 seed.

3-1: Finish 10-5-1, win AFCN and secure #4 seed, Wild Card game at home vs. Chargers.

2-2: Finish 9-6-1, probably 50 percent chance #4 seed, 40 percent #6 seed and Wild Card game at Houston, 10 percent chance miss the playoffs.

1-3: Finish 8-7-1, probably 10 percent chance #4 seed, 45 percent chance #6 seed and 45 percent chance miss the playoffs.

0-4: Finish 7-8-1, probably 99 percent chance miss the playoffs.

+ We still think he’s been an upgrade for the Steelers, but you can certainly see now why Ryan Switzer has bounced to three teams pretty quickly in his short NFL career. Dude has skills and guts, but he’s a human piñata.

+ Many Steelers fans cringed when James Conner suffered what looked like a classic high ankle sprain late in the game Sunday, but some breathed a sigh of relief when the Steelers termed the injury a contusion. That is, until Tuesday’s Mike Tomlin press conference, when he admitted the injury was more serious than a contusion and was an ankle sprain, although he would not use the word “high” to describe it. NFL teams are totally weird about injuries, which is why the league had to create rules for how they’re reported and fines teams who break those rules (so gamblers can be assured they’re all on a level playing field). But just about every team bends those rules every week and the Steelers appear to have been bending them for the past few weeks regarding Conner, who sure has looked like a guy playing with a minor shoulder injury for the past few weeks. But as long as Conner didn’t miss any practice time with the injury, Pittsburgh technically doesn’t have to report it. And we’re guessing that’s exactly what’s happened. So now there is a bright side to the sprained ankle and that is that perhaps Conner’s shoulder will get some time to heal, as well.

+ All that said, he have zero concern about Jaylen Samuels and Stevan Ridley providing what Pittsburgh needs out the RB position to win with one exception and that is Samuels’ pass blocking, which we don’t know enough about since he’s a rookie. The skill set needed to play RB in the NFL has been abundantly shared with many athletes, evidenced once again by a non-drafted free agent’s meteoric season (that being Philip Lindsay in Denver).

The pick: It’s very clear that a mature, disciplined team could go out Sunday, play fundamentally sound football and methodically dismantle this train wreck of a Raiders team and their clueless coach. Unfortunately, this blog is not about a mature, disciplined team that plays fundamentally sound football, it’s about the Steelers. And the Steelers are likely going to go out and one-up Oakland on every dumb thing they do (remember Terrelle Pryor’s 93-yard scoring run on the game’s first play in 2013?), allowing the Raiders to hang around until one goofy, busted play decides the game in the home team’s favor and forces the Steelers to then have to beat New Orleans or New England just to make the playoffs. Sorry, that’s how they roll… Oakland 27-23.

Last week: We were right again, correctly calling the Chargers winning and covering, leaving us 4-7-1 straight up and 5-7 against the spread. We also correctly identified stopping Keenan Allen as the key to a Steelers win. Unfortunately, we thought Joe Haden would be guarding Allen. Ooops.

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