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Pregame stretch:
Steelers vs. Raiders

October 25, 2013 - Ray Eckenrode

Pittsburgh Steelers (2-4) vs. Oakland Raiders (2-4)
Sunday, 4:05 p.m., CBS

Announcers: Spero Dedes and Rich Gannon
Annoyance factor: Dedes, who made his broadcasting bones working TV/radio for the L.A. Lakers, is replacing Marv Albert this week as CBS’s No. 4 play-by-play guy. Dedes usually works on the No. 7 crew with Steve Beurlein. We’re not sure what Albert’s up to (and probably don’t want to know), but we’re guessing Dedes’ “promotion” is more a matter of West Coast proximity than anything. Since he doesn’t usually work with Gannon, who’s not afraid to express an opinion or two, it’ll be interesting to see how they mesh.
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Weather – or not?: Clouds to sun, low 70s, 0 percent chance of rain. With the first flurries of snow floating around western Pennsylvania, the Steelers string of playing in near-perfect conditions continues three time zones west.
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Referee: John Parry
Competence factor: Parry and his crew are quickly gaining a reputation as a bunch of overofficious jerks (to paraphrase the classic NFL Films clip). In seven games, this crew has assessed nearly 1,000 yards in penalties (952 total, 136 per game) to “lead” the league. Foremost among that barrage of flags are 33 holding calls (nearly FIVE per game), which also is the most among crews. Surprisingly, the Steelers and Raiders have two of the least penalized offenses in the league (Oakland is 21st, Pittsburgh 28th).
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The line: Pittsburgh -2.5
Smarts say: In this case, the Raiders +3 for playing at home is offset by the +3 public betting trend to deliver what’s probably a pretty accurate line. The over/under of 40.5 means something like 22-18 Steelers (5 FGs and a TD vs. 6 FGs, it could happen). Four of six Steelers games so far have come in as “unders.”
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Key matchups:
Steve McLendon/Lawrence Timmons and Brett Kiesel/Cam Heyward/Troy Polamalu vs. Raiders rushing game
Because: The Raiders are dead last in the NFL in passing yardage and the Steelers are 4th in pass defense, so running the football would seem paramount to Oakland’s success on Sunday. But the Raider’s rushing game is two-dimensional, of course, with Darren McFadden coming out of the I and Terrelle Pryor, the team’s leading rusher, coming out of the pocket. Controlling McFadden starts with McLendon clogging the middle and ends with Timmons filling gaps. Controlling Pryor begins with containment from Kiesel and Heyward and ends with disciplined pursuit from Polamalu, now almost more of a linebacker than he is a safety.

Quick hits:
+ You know we espoused the “not enough good players” line of reasoning to explain the Steelers early-season woes (and predict a 5-11 season) and we’re sticking to it, but with some modifications that could explain improved play and maybe even a run at .500 and a Wild Card spot. The first, as noted regularly in this space in the past few weeks, is that there are way more bad teams in the NFL this year than we anticipated. We saw the Jets in the Top 12 this week in several experts’ power rankings so that should be all we have to say about that. The second factor we’re starting to see involves how teams with not enough good players can get better. The most obvious way is to get more good players via trades, free agency or the NFL Draft. While that will become important for Pittsburgh in January, for now, we’ll set that one aside. The next, and most obvious, way to get better is to have your good players play at their highest levels. For the Steelers, that would mean Ben Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley, Heath Miller and Troy Polamalu returning to their 2008 form. Roethlisberger and Woodley have certainly showed signs of that the past two weeks and Polamalu does “look” like his old self, even if the results are not yet the same. In Miller’s case, elevated play will likely come with time as he recovers from the serious knee injury he suffered last December. The next way for “not good enough” to get better is just that, the improvement of young players to higher level of play. The most likely candidates to fit that mold right now are David DeCastro, Cam Heyward, Shamarko Thomas, Vince Williams and Cortez Allen. All of those young players have the ability to improve and have shown recently (in an admittedly very small sample size) that they can improve.
+ Now would be a good time to point out that while we have a hard time predicting the outcome of individual games (see below), a couple of our bigger-picture (and more outlandish) predictions from recent years are well on their way to coming to fruition. The first is our contention, first expressed in 2007, that the running back position would not exist in pro football within 15 years, made extinct by a combination of physical, pharmaceutical and economic factors. The second came about a few years later, the contention that Super Bowl XLV between the Steelers and Packers would one day be remembered as the height of pro football, both in terms of popularity and level of play.
+ Just as the Wildcat offense has all but disappeared from the NFL, there might be one big reason for the Steelers to keep it in their playbook. And his name is Mike Adams. Adams presents a real dilemma for the coaching staff. He’s arguably the team’s best run blocker but also arguably one of the worst pass blockers in the league. He’s washed out as both a right tackle and left tackle, but showed promise last week as a tight end/third tackle. One of the reasons the Wildcat works is that by eliminating the quarterback, it allows the offense to outnumber the defense by one. Now, add a third tackle, instead of a tight end, to that mix, and you’re creating an even bigger mismatch, one that might be able to be exploited for longer than you might expect with a gimmick offense.

The pick: If the Steelers give the same effort and provide the same level of execution as the past two weeks, they’ll win this game comfortably, but the days of EXPECTING that are gone. Even when they’ve been good, Pittsburgh has exhibited a penchant for losing to inferior teams and they’ve got a history of doing it in Oakland. We really want to believe the Steelers are heading in the right direction, but we return, as always, to “past behavior is the best predictor of future performance." In that vein: 20-13 Raiders in 2006, 34-31 Raiders in 2012… 24-23 Raiders in 2013.
Last week: We’ve got back-to-back double doinks and our prediction of a Ravens’ three-point win turned was flipped on us (although our key matchup prediction on Le’Veon Bell vs. Ray Rice proved to be right on the money). That leaves us at 2-4 straight up (which is where we thought the Steelers would be through six) and 3-3 against the spread. It should be noted we have not been sub-.500 against the spread since the 2011 season.

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