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Old 12-05-2009, 07:14 PM   #1
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Default If the matchup fits ...

If the matchup fits ...
By Jim Wexell
Posted Dec 5, 2009

In a twist, the Steelers want to get the ball to the Raiders' best player and break three-game skid.

PITTSBURGH – The Oakland Raiders have collected five Top-7 athletes from the last six drafts, but their best player is still their punter.

And Shane Lechler’s in the midst of a monster season. If Lechler’s gross punting average of 51.9 yards holds up, he’ll break a 59-year-old record held by Sammy Baugh, who averaged 51.4 yards per punt in 1940.

“They lead the league in return yards allowed, but also in net punting,” marveled Steelers punter Dan Sepulveda. “That’s just amazing.”

That the Raiders’ punter is their star pretty much explains why they’re coming to Heinz Field Sunday with a 3-8 record to play the desperate 6-5 Steelers.

The Steelers are riding their first three-game losing streak since 2006 and hope to get well against a team that ranks 31st in offense and 29th in defense.

The Raiders are dead last in passing, kickoff return average, and punt return average, and perhaps most importantly they’re 31st in run defense, which should play right into the hands of a Steelers team that lost its No. 2 quarterback two weeks ago and hopes to ease its No. 1 back into action after he missed the previous game with a concussion.

While Ben Roethlisberger said he’s fine and “ready to rock and roll,” his offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, has already considered some health-conscious parameters for his game plan.

“You try to take out any kind of reverse play or gadget play where he might have to block,” said Arians. “And you’d have to really think about a quarterback sneak, anything that’s going to put an extra hit on a guy. But once he’s cleared to play, you play. You don’t want him playing scared; you don’t want to call the game scared. We’ve got to go out there and win the game. This is too important to pull anything back.”

The Raiders will play their typical press man coverage, which has the principals in the Steelers’ passing game licking their lips in anticipation of big plays.

“I can’t remember the last time we played a team that plays so much man coverage,” said wide receiver Hines Ward. “Teams don’t like to blitz with man coverage against us because of Ben’s escapability, but Oakland, they do their thing and they’re not going to change. They want speed at wide receiver and on defense they want press corners. Al Davis is still living in the ’70s.”

Arians agreed, but only partially. “Mr. Davis’s outfits are (from the ’70s), but they’ve got talent.”

The most talented Raiders defender is cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, a two-time Pro Bowler who this week complained that the Raiders’ scheme is too simple.

“We’ve got one way of doing it and that’s what we do,” Asomugha told Oakland reporters. “Teams can get us into tough situations.”

The Raiders have given up 54 plays of 20 or more yards, which leads the league. Twenty of those have been running plays. The Raiders allow a whopping 4.6 yards per carry.

“A lot of that came early in the year,” countered Arians. “They’re playing better run defense than they had been. We’ve got to stay balanced. We have to see what’s happening and what’s out there. We don’t try to force the hand. I was very pleased with the way we ran the ball the other night against a very good defense. Hopefully we can build upon that.”

Offensively, the Raiders can’t catch the ball, which meshes with a Steelers secondary that can’t catch it, either.

While the Steelers are one of only two teams without interceptions from a cornerback, the Raiders’ wide receivers have combined to catch only 46 passes for 615 yards and 3 touchdowns. By comparison, Steelers tight end Heath Miller’s numbers are 55-494-5.

Pittsburgh native Bruce Gradkowski replaced 2007 No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell as the Raiders’ quarterback two weeks ago, and in his first start Gradkowski threw two touchdown passes in a 20-17 upset of the Cincinnati Bengals. But on Thanksgiving Day, in a 24-7 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Gradkowski played more like the quarterback who posted a 20.3 passer rating in two previous starts at Heinz Field, games the Steelers won by a combined 51-3 margin.

Gradkowski’s top target is tight end Zach Miller (39-568-2). The Raiders’ best offensive talent is at running back, where Justin Fargas (3.9), Michael Bush (4.6) and Darren McFadden (3.3) are healthy.

It’s obvious that the Raiders will have matchup problems Sunday. Even their kickoff return man, Gary Russell, should be contained by the beleaguered Steelers’ coverage unit.

Russell averaged 23.2 yards per return last season for the Steelers, who released Russell in the offseason, even though he scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl. Currently the Raiders’ backup fullback, Russell assumed the return duties last week and averaged 14.3 per return.

So it’s clear that the Steelers will take a unique game plan into Sunday’s game: They’ll force the Raiders to put the ball into the hands of their best player – and let him punt it away.
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