The Oakland Raiders are no joke anymore, and a large part of their success has been around some young players who are competing at a very high level. Behind Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack, the Raiders have become an AFC contender once again.
This Sunday the Raiders invade Heinz Field to play the Pittsburgh Steelers to renew a classic rivalry dating back to the early 1970s. To get a glimpse of this matchup from the other side of the fence, I was able to sit down with Levi Damien, editor of Silver and Black Pride (SB Nation's Raiders site) to talk about the upcoming grudge match.
It has taken a while, but the Oakland Raiders are a team to be reckoned with again in the AFC. What are the main contributing factors to their recent success? Coach? Draft picks? Ownership? or something entirely different?
It's all of the above, really. Mark Davis as an owner wanted to make the Raiders into a more conventional NFL organization with a GM, team president, etc. The best players on the team are last year's first three draft picks Khalil Mack, Derek Carr, and Gabe Jackson, with the gaps filled in by a nice looking free agent crop. there is also a nice mixture of established veterans - led by Charles Woodson -- and young players. The new coaching staff has been tremendous to the team success. The players believe in Jack Del Rio and respect his experience and he put together a staff which has gotten better as they have gotten more used to their personnel.
Speaking of teams to be reckoned with, the Raiders have beaten the Steelers 4 out of their last 5 meetings. The only Pittsburgh win was the infamous Richard Seymour punching Ben Roethlisberger in the face game. Is there any type of common denominator in this series which has given the Raiders such success against Pittsburgh?
I don't think so, outside of the fact that three of those four Raiders wins came in Oakland and the other one was the Bruce Gradkowski homecoming game. In Pittsburgh, it's flipped with the Raiders having lost four of of their last five. Again, the only outlier being the Gradkowski game in 2009.
The Steelers defense has been known to bend, but not break. Will the Raiders come into the game trying to test the Pittsburgh mediocre secondary? Or will they look to try and work the clock, and keep Ben Roethlisberger off the field, with the ground game?
They will go after the secondary. Bill Musgrave calls a lot of passing plays. Even when the Raiders are ahead and should get conservative, Carr is throwing. Sometimes with an empty backfield. Latavius Murray has run an average of 16 times per game. The weakest secondary they have faced was the Ravens, a game in which Derek Carr threw the ball 46 times. If the Raiders sense weakness in the secondary with the Steelers, expect a similar ratio. Probably 2/1 pass to run.
Amari Cooper is making quite a name for himself in the NFL as a rookie. From what you've seen through 8 weeks of NFL action, what makes Cooper a future great in the league?
His incredible ability to release off the line, shake his defender, and break free after the catch. His route running, quickness, and agility are matched by few. The closest comparison I've seen is Steve Smith Sr. He of "Ice up, son" fame (though he could use some of Smith's aggressive style). Cooper has had a few top tier corners this year icing up after trying to stick to him during the game. Last week he had 5 catches on Darrelle Revis, though Revis did well to not let Coop get by him to break off any long gainers as he did two weeks ago with his 52-yard bubble screen touchdown.
I can't let you go without a prediction. How do you see this game playing out at Heinz Field Sunday, and what is your score?
Greeeat. My favorite. I see a bit of a shootout. Both these teams have questionable secondaries and big armed quarterbacks. But the Steelers have the home field advantage. Let's go with Steelers 31-27.
Be sure to check out Levi's work, and the rest of his staff, at Silver and Black Pride for the best coverage of the game from the other side of the fence.