Steelers vs Raiders : For the third straight week the Raiders (2-10) are double-digit underdogs, this time as the AFC North-best Steelers (7-4-1) venture west for a 1:25 p.m. PST kickoff on Sunday at the Oakland Coliseum.
Ben Roethlisberger has never won in Oakland in three tries, but he also went 8-1 against Paul Guenther when the Raiders’ defensive coordinator called plays for the Bengals’defense from 2014-17.
The Raiders currently sit tied for the worst record in the NFL along with their Bay Area partners, but the 49ers own the tiebreaker with a weaker strength of schedule.
As the Steelers play for the playoffs and the Raiders play for pride, let’s have a look at three things to keep an eye on when the two old rivals meet.
When the Raiders signed Anderson early this week, they did so not knowing whether Doug Martin (knee) would play on Sunday after the current starting running back suffered an injury against the Chiefs.
“He’s going to tell you he’s playing no matter what,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said of Martin on Friday. “But he’s got to check out with the trainers and certainly has to come in here Saturday and make sure that we’re all doing the right thing. We have C.J. Anderson. We’re giving him a crash course on our protections and our system. If need be, we’ll have him up. But we’re hoping Doug is ready.”
Anderson played nine games for the Panthers this season before they waived him, tallying 101 yards on 24 carries and catching one pass for a 24-yard touchdown. The Bay Area native, 2015 Pro Bowler and Super Bowl 50 champion is only 27 years old and ran for over 1,000 yards just last season.
The Raiders didn’t cut a running back to make room for Anderson, so Martin, Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington remain as the Raiders’ backfield stands four strong. How they split carries with Anderson, if at all, remains to be seen. But don’t be surprised if he gets his fair share as the Raiders evaluate potential pieces for the future in these relatively meaningless final four games.
“Pretty good,” Gruden said when asked how Anderson looked this week. “He’s a pro’s pro, he really is. A quick learner.”
The Steelers rank eighth in the NFL with only 100.4 rushing yards allowed per game, so the Raiders will need all the backfield help they can get.
In his last five games prior to facing the Chiefs, Nelson combined for five catches, 36 yards and no touchdowns, including no-catch outings against the Chargers in Week 10 and Ravens in Week 12 (he missed Week 11 due to injury). An unsubstantiated report even surfaced following the Raiders’ 20-6 loss to the Chargers claiming Nelson was retiring, and though untrue it almost looked valid if you watched the last couple games.
Then suddenly the 33-year-old wide receiver tapped into his reserve tank and led the Raiders with 10 catches last Sunday, his most since a 12-catch day on Nov. 13, 2016 for the Packers against the Titans. Nelson added 97 yards and a couple acrobatic catches, proving he might not be done wreaking havoc on opposing secondaries just yet.
Perhaps all it took was returning to full health after being hampered by a knee injury.
“I think a big part of it, yeah, that he is healthy,” Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson said Thursday. “I think practicing in the indoor, getting off his feet a little bit because we weren’t able to run full-speed practices. We got a lot above the neck work done and a lot of reps done without the full-speed running. I think he’s healthier and he has his legs back.”
The Raiders’ receiving corps can’t afford to take any more hits – No. 2 wideout Seth Roberts is questionable for Sunday while in the concussion protocol – and keeping Nelson at full health for the rest of the season would be a small victory in a lost year.
All eyes will be on Antonio Brown on Sunday, and understandably so, but the Steelers’ No. 2 receiving threat is equally capable of dismantling the Raiders.
Second-year USC product JuJu Smith-Schuster has 83 catches, 1,104 yards and four touchdowns this season, including a 97-yard touchdown catch two weeks ago in which he outran the entire Broncos defense and stiff-armed two defenders at once en route to paydirt.
Smith-Schuster ranks eighth in the league in receiving yards, and actually has more than Brown, who still leads the NFL with 12 touchdown catches. Whether it be their No. 1 or No. 2, the Steelers will give the Raiders’ secondary fits on Sunday.
“He’s a good player. He’s a physical guy. He’s obviously smart. He’s taken advantage of some of the coverage that Antonio is getting,” Gruden said of Smith-Schuster. “He’s a natural football player. He’s an excellent blocker. He’s outstanding after the catch. He’s, I think, coming into his own as a legitimate go-to guy. They’ve got two of them in Pittsburgh and that’s a problem for us.”