Oakland Raiders: Keys to Victory Over Pittsburgh Steelers

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Jan 3, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller (83) carries the ball as Baltimore Ravens defensive back Rashaan Melvin (38) chases in the second quarter during the 2014 AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t Sleep On Heath Miller

It’s no secret that the Raiders have struggled to cover the opposing team’s tight end this season. They’ve been lit up by the likes of Tyler Eifert, Crockett Gillmore, Gary Barnidge, and Martellus Bennett. But Del Rio and Norton have proven that they aren’t afraid to adjust their schemes and in fact, find solutions to their problems.

When it came to covering tight ends and receivers on intermediate routes, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton – well – struggled. No, he didn’t just struggle, he was abysmally bad. Lofton is fantastic at doing what he does best – which is stopping the run. But when it comes to covering on those intermediate routes, he was a train wreck.

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Del Rio and Norton saw the problem (finally) and fixed it. That fix came in the form of shifting Malcolm Smith – who is more athletic and far better against the pass than Lofton – to the middle and letting the rookie Neiron Ball help cover on passing downs.

And like magic, Oakland’s problems with getting blown up by opposing tight ends went away. Poof!

The challenge for the Raiders this week though, is that Ball is out with an injury – and will be for a couple more weeks, apparently – so they won’t have his speed and athleticism to count upon when it comes to covering those intermediate routes that Roehthlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense like to run.

It becomes even more of a challenge when you realize just how much Roethlisberger likes to throw to his tight end. Heath Miller is second on the team – behind only Antonio Brown – with 27 receptions for 273 yards.

Given Oakland’s troubles covering tight ends this season – and with the rookie Ball out of the lineup – the Raiders’ defense should anticipate that the Steelers will try to exploit that and get the ball into Miller’s hands as well as get their intermediate passing game with Darrius Heyward-Bey (17 receptions for 209 yards and two touchdowns), Markus Wheaton (13 receptions for 257 yards and a score) , and Martavis Bryant (13 receptions for 231 yards and three touchdowns) going. They will also need to keep an eye on DeAngelo Williams, who will be playing in place of the injured Bell as he can also catch out of the backfield.

Simply put, not having Ball in on passing downs is a pretty significant blow to the Raiders’ defense. They are going to need to find a way to fill that void and remain solid against those short and intermediate passes. They’ve gotten increasingly better over the last few weeks, but the Steelers present them with a very stiff test.

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