While the Steelers were carved up by Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer in Week 3, and surrendered a 64-yard touchdown run to Darren McFadden in the first quarter, the Steelers' defense played a decent game.
The problem on the defensive side of the ball appeared to be more in pre-snap movements identified by Palmer, and the lax coverage behind their blitz schemes.
The fact a quarterback is able to recognize LB Lawrence Timmons creeping to the line likely means he's going to rush the passer is one thing; the player getting to the spot Timmons is vacating is another. Palmer calmly threw into and away from the Steelers' key pressure spots with a high rate of efficiency, but did not gash the Steelers for big plays.
The Steelers made Palmer march his defense "the hard way," completing several shorter passes without the benefit of much yards after the catch. While the overall defensive performance was not good enough for a win (Oakland did score 10 points on short field position caused by two Steelers' turnovers), the fact Palmer only threw for 5.9 yards per pass shows his performance was outstanding more from a mental perspective than a physical one.
Pittsburgh's defense showed at times flashes of its dominant self, and one goal line play in particular, showed how sometimes good ol' fashioned brute strength can be just as stifling for an offense than the splash play the Steelers defense just isn't making through three games.
NT Steve McLendon hasn't broken double-digits in plays yet this season. Some of that can be attributed to offenses going no-huddle when the Steelers are in their base defense, keeping Casey Hampton in over McLendon. Or at least that's on theory. Outside of that, it's something of a mystery as to why he isn't playing, especially when seeing plays like this one.
With 7:13 remaining in the third quarter, the Steelers are hanging onto a 24-14 lead. Their goal line defense is in on a 2nd-and-goal play, and Oakland is in their jumbo package looking to run the ball for the one yard they need to bring the Steelers lead to within a field goal.
At the snap, McLendon gets a huge push on center Stefan Wisniewski, moving him two yards into the backfield, cutting off any possible cutback option for McFadden.
McLendon's technique is perfect. He gets under Wisniewski's pads and uses his impressive lower body strength to drive him backward. Defensive end Brett Keisel gets low, simply looking to jam up any lane in which McFadden could hit head on and fall forward. Safety Ryan Mundy follows the ball carrier and fills in for Keisel.
McFadden has nowhere to go. One last-ditch effort to move the pile the Steelers created up front is made by fullback Owen Schmitt does little more than clear out tight end Richard Gordon, whom OLB Chris Carter had stood up and held the edge.
Carter's run support has improved consistently with each game. While he's no James Harrison, and the return of the Pro Bowl player would put Carter on the bench, he's a perfect example of how this defense is improving. It may not be the best unit in the league, but if it continues its arch of improvement the way it has after three games, it will be toward the end of the season.
With Larry Foote and Will Allen inside to keep the pile from moving forward, the play goes nowhere for Oakland and the Steelers showed flashes back to an era in which teams simply avoided running the ball due to the overall skill and scheme of the Steelers' defense.
The key is McLendon's strength, and ability to collapse the middle of the Raiders' line. Operating in so little space, a defense will always have a tough time preventing a running back from simply falling forward to score a touchdown. In this case, the defense didn't even allow that. McFadden is met by a wall of Steelers a yard behind the line of scrimmage, and his forward progress is stopped for a yard loss.