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How the Steelers potent pass rush will be crucial against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 2

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ pass rush will need to be clicking on all cylinders against the Las Vegas Raiders at Heinz Field Sunday.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The Steelers (1-0) host the Las Vegas Raiders (1-0) in their home opener on Sunday at 1:00 p.m. at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Here’s everything you need to know to get you ready for the game:

LAST WEEK

Both teams earned exciting comeback victories in Week 1. The Steelers trailed the Bills 10-0 at halftime in Buffalo before authoring a dominant second half that produced a 23-16 win. I broke that game down earlier this week in the article below:

The Raiders fell behind the Baltimore Ravens 14-0 in their Vegas debut then rallied to tie the game on a 55 yard field goal by Daniel Carlson on the final play of regulation. They won it in overtime when quarterback Derek Carr connected with receiver Zay Jones for a touchdown and a 33-27 decision.

WHO’S HOT FOR THE STEELERS?

The Pass Rush. Pittsburgh sacked Buffalo’s Josh Allen three times on Sunday and pressured him constantly. T.J. Watt had two sacks, Cam Heyward had one and Melvin Ingram and Alex Highsmith buzzed Allen all day. The fact the Steelers got after the quarterback is not surprising. They’ve led or tied for the league-lead in sacks four seasons in a row. But, on Sunday, they did it without the blitz. Per Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis, here are the teams who blitzed on the lowest percentage of their opponent’s offensive snaps in Week 1:

The Steelers, at 1.8%, were far and away the least frequent blitzers. This is remarkable considering they are annually among the most aggressive in this category (their average the past few seasons has been right around 40%). To cut the blitz out of their game-plan almost entirely surprised the Bills. This was evident in how often Allen held the football in the pocket looking for an open receiver.

The Steelers used this strategy so they could drop seven players into coverage to slow Buffalo’s speedy receivers. While the defensive backs played well, particularly the surprising trio of Tre Norwood, James Pierre and Arthur Maulet, who manned the Steelers’ nickel and dime packages, the pass rush was the straw that stirred their drink. The fact the Steelers were able to get to Allen with just four rushers provided them the luxury of blanket coverage. With some quartet of Watt, Ingram, Highsmith, Heyward and eventually Stephon Tuitt coming after opposing quarterbacks, the Steelers may have one of the best four-man pass rushes in recent years in the NFL. The New York Giants, in defeating Tom Brady twice in the Super Bowl when Brady was in New England, showed how a defense can disrupt a powerful passing attack with a great four-man rush. If the Steelers can duplicate that strategy, their already-dangerous defense will be even better.

WHO’S HOT FOR THE RAIDERS?

Tight end Darren Waller. Waller was superb against the Ravens on Monday night. He had 10 catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. He was targeted 19 times by Carr. You read that correctly — 19 targets. Those are 2018 Antonio Brown numbers.

The Raiders deployed Waller about every way you can scheme a tight end. He lined up on the line, in the slot, out wide, in bunch sets. They threw him bubble screens, flat routes, slants, quick outs, seam routes, dig routes, crossing routes, fade balls. At various times he was matched up on linebackers, safeties and corners. Of his receptions, 5 were caught inside the numbers and 5 outside the numbers. He caught 7 balls between 0-10 yards past the line of scrimmage and 3 between 11-20 yards. Vegas used him to stretch the field both horizontally and vertically.

Because Waller was used in such diverse fashion, the Steelers don’t have a tendency upon which to rely when it comes to game-planning for him. The 6’6-256 pound Waller presents problems no matter how he’s used. The fact Vegas threw him a bubble screen last Sunday — a play that is typically reserved for scat-backs and Diontae Johnson-type receivers — speaks volumes about his diversity. Head coach Mike Tomlin, in an address to the media on Tuesday, was coy when asked about his options in defending Waller.

“I’m not going to disclose any of them,” Tomlin said. “Options are good, and not only in terms of changing people up, but the number of people. You better be prepared to deal with 19 targets.”

While Tomlin’s comments don’t contain much meat on the bone, they’re not totally obscure. In terms of “changing people up,” it seems logical the Steelers will use a different strategy this week than they did against Buffalo. The Bills spread Pittsburgh out with four and five-receiver sets and tried to exploit their defensive backfield. Vegas will go big — 52 of their 80 offensive snaps against Baltimore were from 12, 21 and 13 personnel — which will require the Steelers to use more of their base 3-4.

I expect the Steelers to attack Waller with a coverage-by-committee approach. However, one player who may travel with him as he moves about the formation is Minkah Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick’s role was expanded against Buffalo. He moved out of his traditional deep safety assignment to play 19 snaps in the slot, predominantly as part of Pittsburgh’s attempt to slow down the dangerous Stefon Diggs. Diggs caught 9 balls against Pittsburgh but for just 69 yards. Fitzpatrick could be used to shadow Waller in a similar fashion.

WHERE MUST THE STEELERS IMPROVE?

Attack the numbers. The Steelers’ run game numbers weren’t great against Buffalo. They gained 75 yards on 21 carries, but 25 of those came on a reverse to receiver Chase Claypool. Rookie Najee Harris had just 45 yards on 16 carries. However, as I detailed in my film room on Tuesday, quite often the Steelers were running into stacked boxes that saw Buffalo outnumber them at the line of scrimmage. The Bills played man coverage, loaded up against the run and dared Pittsburgh to beat them vertically. The Steelers did it in the second half, but not before running into a lot of crowded looks the first two quarters.

The Raiders under defensive coordinator Gus Bradley are not a press-man team, however. They favor Cover-3, which divides the back end of the field into thirds and the underneath into quarters. The Raiders played zone on 31 of Baltimore’s 33 pass attempts last week and were in Cover-3 on 84% of those zone looks. Cover-3 prioritizes defending deep balls at the expense of the short passing game. Ironically, the Raiders allowed opposing quarterbacks an average of 7 yards per attempt last season, which ranked 27th in the league. Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson averaged 7.8 YPA against the Raiders last week. So, despite their philosophy, Vegas is vulnerable to big plays.

While Vegas could copy Buffalo’s strategy, odds are they’ll stick to their zone schemes. This may allow the Steelers to get a cleaner look up front since it’s hard to play zone with an overloaded box. If the Steelers are in situations where the numbers are even, they must be able to run the football. And if the Raiders press and load the box? They need to throw over their heads like they did last week. It’s all about the numbers for the Pittsburgh offense on Sunday.

WHERE MUST THE RAIDERS IMPROVE?

The offensive line. The Raiders dialed up a huge number of pass plays against Baltimore (59). Derek Carr was sacked on three of them and pressured 12 times. That’s a 21% pressure rate. While Baltimore has a decent pass rush (14th in sacks last season), it’s nowhere near as potent as Pittsburgh’s. If Vegas is going to rely so heavily on the passing game, they’ll have to find a way to protect Carr more effectively.

One way to do so is with their personnel. The Raiders preference for heavy groupings provides them a fullback and/or multiple tight ends on the field. One of these players can be used as an extra pass protector. Those groupings will also put the Steelers in their base 3-4, where, against the pass, they’ll have to use Watt or Ingram/Highsmith in coverage when they drop seven. The Steelers could opt to rush five, of course, but that limits their ability to double Waller. Throwing the ball from heavy groupings, then, may be something Vegas will favor.

Another solution is simply not to pass as much. Vegas ran just 21 times against the Ravens. Better balance could keep the Steelers’ stellar pass rushers from teeing off on Carr. Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake are the main ball-carriers in Vegas. Jacobs has been a 1,000 yard rusher in both of his NFL seasons and Drake is a reliable veteran. The Raiders have capable backs if they want to run the ball more.

The problem is, no matter what they decide, their line is a mess. Left guard Richie Incognito remains out with a calf injury while right guard Denzelle Good was lost for the season against Baltimore with a torn ACL. Meanwhile, right tackle Alex Leatherwood struggled at times with Baltimore’s Justin Houston and center Andre James had a few shaky snaps, one of which went over Carr’s head. The combination of injury replacements and questionable play from their regulars makes the matchup of Vegas’s offensive line against Pittsburgh’s defensive front a major area of concern for the Raiders.

PITTSBURGH WINS IF...

...the pass rush gets home, they contain Waller, Canada plays the numbers game effectively and the Steelers avoid another inexplicable stinker against the Raiders (they are 1-3 in four games, all of which Pittsburgh was the favorite, since 2012).

VEGAS WINS IF...

...their patched-up offensive line holds together, Derek Carr plays lights-out and their zone defense goads Roethlisberger into mistakes. The Raiders also must recover from a Monday night overtime game and a cross-country flight on a short week to knock off an AFC power on the road.

PREDICTION

Steelers 27, Raiders 19