The Pittsburgh Steelers took down the Oakland Raiders in a high-scoring affair at Heinz Field in Week 9. The win improved the Steelers record to 5-4 overall, while the Raiders fell to 4-4 on the season.
Let's take a closer look at what went right and went what wrong for the Steelers on Sunday, and what it means for the team moving forward.
All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown snagged a team-record 17 receptions for a team-record 284 yards against Oakland's secondary. Brown had 10 catches for 180 yards in the first half alone, taking advantage of man coverage and consistently beating double teams throughout the game. Those numbers earned him the highest single-game wide receiver grade in the history of Pro Football Focus. More importantly, it helped the Steelers get a much-needed victory. Somehow, Brown did not win the AFC Offensive Player of the Week Award.
Running back DeAngelo Williams carried the ball a season-high 27 times for 170 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught two passes for 55 yards. Williams and Brown combined for 531 all-purpose yards.
531 combined scrimmage yards by Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams is NFL single-game record for 2 players.— Gerry Dulac (@gerrydulac) November 9, 2015
The Steelers front office deserves a lot of credit for signing Williams to a two-year deal this offseason. The veteran back has a solid set of hands, and shows excellent patience and vision when hitting the hole between the tackles, and cutting it back against the formation. Williams skill set allows the Steelers to run a lot of the same plays they would normally run with Bell in the game. He's also been excellent in short-yardage situations, flashing his agility and power.
Williams broke off several big gains running behind left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and left guard Ramon Foster, with fullback Roosevelt Nix and pulling guard David Decastro leading the way. It's been the Steelers bread-and-butter play this season, and proved effective against Oakland's stout front seven, which came into the game ranked No. 2 against the run.
The Steelers offense is now 4/6 (66.7%) on two-point conversions through nine weeks. When Roethlisberger is on the field, head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have been aggressive with their decision making and play calling. Pittsburgh leads the NFL in two-point conversion attempts and two-point conversions made.
Right tackle Marcus Gilbert manhandled Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack, who was invisible for the vast majority of the game. Gilbert, who is noticeably thinner this year, is having the best season of his career. He's done particularly well in pass protection, and is playing with a nasty edge.
Rookie tight end Jesse James made two big plays, which included a key block on Martavis Bryant's touchdown catch and run with 12:13 remaining in the fourth quarter, and a four-yard touchdown reception that helped extend the Steelers lead to 35-21 just 49 seconds later. James played 33 offensive snaps in place of the injured Matt Spaeth.
Before his injury, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looked much sharper in his second game back from a sprained MCL and bone bruise. Roethlisberger completed 24/44 passes for 334 yards and an interception before exiting in the fourth quarter. Haley even rolled him out a few times, an indication the knee has healed significantly over the past few weeks. His body language after the foot injury was much better than it was after he sustained the injury to his knee in Week 3. I'd be surprised if he's not back in action in a few weeks.
Roethlisberger left the game with a sprained left foot midway through the fourth quarter. He was injured while being sacked by Raiders linebacker Aldon Smith. Pittsburgh's quarterback has had a hard time staying on the field this season, and the team will be without him for at least a few more weeks. It appears the best case scenario is a return for the Week-12 matchup with the Seattle Seahawks following the bye week.
You'd be hard pressed to find an NFL safety that's played as well as Mike Mitchell has over the past few weeks. Mitchell has shown a lot of improvement in his second year with the Steelers. His crushing hit on Raiders running back Latavius Murray led to a forced fumble that was recovered by Jarvis Jones with the scored tied at 21 near the end of the third quarter. Roethlisberger had just thrown an interception at Pittsburgh's 33-yard line, and Oakland was driving for the go-ahead score when Mitchell delivered the devastating hit.
Mitchell's 2015 stats through nine weeks compared to 16 games of 2014 season via ESPN.com:
Nickel back Ross Cockrell's interception of Raiders quarterback Derek Carr in the end zone was a game-saving play. With 4:21 remaining in the fourth quarter, Cockrell intercepted Carr's pass intended for tight end Clive Walford in the end zone, and returned it to Pittsburgh's 24-yard line. The interception allowed the Steelers to maintain a slim 35-28 advantage. Cockrell played 57 snaps in the game, his second highest total of the season.
The Steelers defense spent the majority of the game in its nickel package. The absence of a nose tackle and a good push from the Raiders offensive line allowed Murray to break off several long runs. He was averaging 5.6 yards on 17 carries before leaving the game with a concussion.
Sunday was not one of Ryan Shazier's better performances. The second-year linebacker was continually swallowed up by Oakland's guards in the run game, and was picked on in pass coverage. He was beaten badly on a third quarter touchdown pass from Carr to Walford.
Carr and his arsenal of talented skill position players carved up the Steelers secondary to the tune of 301 yards and four touchdowns. A combination of blown coverages and being caught with the wrong personnel on the field helped contribute to Carr's big day. Cornerback Antwon Blake's team-high nine tackles was a telling stat from a less than stellar game for Pittsburgh's pass defense. When it comes to Blake, it appears the Steelers coaching staff is willing to take the bad with the good. Blake tends to get picked on by opposing quarterbacks in coverage, but he's a fiery competitor, and a ferocious hitter. He recorded a key tackle-for-loss to go along with a forced fumble and two passes defensed against the Raiders.
The Steelers defense failed to record a sack for the first time this season. A lack of push by the front four, and a handful of poorly timed blitzes allowed Carr to sit comfortably in the pocket on the majority of his dropbacks. The Raiders offensive line is one of the best in the league. Per Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the unit has surrendered just 10 sacks to opponents this season (third in NFL).
Punter Jordan Berry pinned the Raiders inside their own ten-yard line twice, helping to flip the field for the Steelers. Berry leads in the NFL with 20 punts inside the opponents 20-yard line, and is averaging 42.3 yards per punt.
Rookies Roosevelt Nix and linebacker Bud Dupree each made a big special teams play. Dupree partially blocked a punt, and Nix forced a fumble with a big hit on a kickoff. Nix's forced fumble led to Roethlisberger's four-yard touchdown pass to James, which extended the Steelers lead to 35-21 early in the fourth quarter.
Newly acquired return man Jacoby Jones did not play well in his Steelers debut. He was ineffective returning punts and kickoffs, and didn't get much blocking from the rest of the return unit. But I'm going to withhold judgement on Jones for at least a few more weeks. I have faith, given his body of work, that he will be an upgrade over Dri Archer. Brown's muffed punt with six minutes remaining didn't end up costing the Steelers, but it's also worth mentioning.
Kicker Chris Boswell missed his first field goal attempt of the season, pulling a 41-yard attempt wide left near the end of the third quarter. Boswell is now 8/9 on the season, but his miss on Sunday is no reason to panic. If he continues to convert at a high percentage, it's going to make the coming offseason very interesting, given that Shaun Suisham is still under contract.
The Big Picture
The Steelers earned a much-needed victory over the Raiders in Week 9. At 5-4, Pittsburgh is still well in contention in the AFC Wild Card race. Sunday's victory moved the Steelers up into the No. 6 position in the AFC, just behind the No. 5 New York Jets (5-3).
If the season ended today, the Steelers would travel for an opening round playoff matchup with the No. 3 Denver Broncos (7-1). A win over Cleveland on Sunday, and a Jets loss to the Bills tonight, would move Pittsburgh into the highly-coveted No. 5 spot. The No. 5 seed will more than likely play the winner of the dreadfully awful AFC South Division in the first round.