OAKLAND — The Pittsburgh Steelers returned home from London three weeks ago with no wins, an offense that couldn’t run the ball or hold onto it, and a defense that couldn’t take the ball away.
That all added up to the worst start for the franchise in more than four decades. But it was nothing a week off couldn’t cure.
The Steelers (2-4) have been a different team since getting a bye the week after their loss in London to Minnesota, beating the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens in consecutive weeks to get closer to the playoff hunt in the AFC.
The biggest difference has been cutting down on turnovers. After giving it away 11 times and failing to take it back once in the four losses, Pittsburgh has just one turnover and two takeaways the past two weeks.
“We’re not shooting ourselves in the foot,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “We’re not turning the ball over as much and we’re getting some. I think it’s as simple as that.”
The Raiders (2-4) are hoping they can respond from a bye week as well as the Steelers did.
They went into the week off with a 24-7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs when they allowed nine sacks and threw three interceptions in a sloppy offensive performance.
But the week off hasn’t been kind to the Raiders in recent years. They have lost the last 10 games coming out of the bye, getting outscored 271-139 in the process.
“I think we’re all aware of that, but like I told the players, the past has no relevance to the future,” coach Dennis Allen said. “Any of the outcomes that have happened after a bye in the past won’t dictate how we go out and play against Pittsburgh.”
Here are five things to watch for when the Steelers visit the Raiders:
Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor grew up watching the Steelers in nearby Jeannette, admiring Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu. Pryor sat on the bench when the Raiders hosted Pittsburgh a year ago, but now gets a chance to go against his boyhood team.
“I’ll probably play against guys I looked up to, guys that were role models to me,” Pryor said. “At the end of the day that’s the past and I was younger. Now it’s time to go out and play against them.”
The Steelers haven’t had to contend much with running quarterbacks like Pryor this season. Opposing QBs had just 13 non-kneeldown runs in six games against Pittsburgh. Pryor leads Oakland with 285 yards rushing and is tops in the NFL at 6.5 yards per carry as he has excelled in both the read-option game and with scrambles on broken plays.
“The key is that we remain aggressive, yet smart,” Tomlin said. “Obviously, you’re concerned about constricting and containing a guy that is capable of providing explosion plays, but you can’t allow that to take your edge in terms of how you play.”
Center of attention
The Raiders’ offense stalled in their loss to the Chiefs in part because of injuries on the line. The most significant were at center, where starter Stefen Wisniewski missed his second straight game with a knee injury and backup Andre Gurode left in the first half with a quadriceps injury. That forced guard Mike Brisiel to move to center for the first time ever in the NFL. Wisniewski is expected back Sunday and will once again make the line and protection calls.
“I know if it’s just in the box, Wiz is going to handle it,” Pryor said. “I know I can go back to focusing on the play and the coverage. It’s going to be a lot easier.”
The Steelers finally got their running game on track last week after averaging just 3.1 yards per carry the first five games. With rookie Le’Veon Bell gaining 93 yards on 19 carries, the Steelers gained 141 yards on the ground in last week’s win over the Ravens. That gives needed balance to the offense that had relied too heavily on Roethlisberger.
Raiders fullback Marcel Reece has been mostly silent this season, with just nine carries and 10 catches through six games. Those lack of touches come despite calls from general manager Reggie McKenzie, Allen, offensive coordinator Greg Olson and the quarterback to get the versatile Reece the ball more often.
“Every game or every week when we finish a game, we go back through a stat sheet and look at how many times the guys were targeted and how many times they actually touched the ball,” Olson said. “We’re aware of that with Marcel.”
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