The Oakland Raiders are fresh from a bye week and have a tough game ahead of them on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, as the Steelers are finally back on track and are coming off of a big win over the rival Baltimore Ravens. The Raiders are just 2-4 this season, but the interesting thing is that they are 10th in the AFC in Pro Football Reference’s SRS, which means they are a below-average-but-not-awful team statistically. The Steelers deserve to be the favorites this week against the Raiders, but the Raiders aren’t just going to fold and die this week.
1. Darren McFadden back at full strength
The bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for the Oakland Raiders, because it was crucial in allowing the offensive line to get healthy. However, the most important player getting a much-needed breather is Darren McFadden, who clearly looked off the pace over the past few weeks with a hamstring injury. Raiders head coach Dennis Allen recently indicated that McFadden is back to full strength, and that will be crucial when going up against a defense as hard-nosed as the Steelers. For the Raiders, it all starts up front, and the offensive line has to help McFadden spring some big runs. They won’t be able to consistently mix it up with the Steelers front seven and get consistent yardage, but the Raiders can certainly play to McFadden’s strengths as an explosive, big-play rusher and give him a chance to bust out some big ones.
McFadden hasn’t looked good this year, but he hasn’t been as bad as he was last season (though, of course, it wasn’t all his fault and his struggles still aren’t all his fault…just partially on him). I honestly think the Raiders run blocking has been among the worst in the NFL, which is why it is so important for them to play well on Sunday. They have to at least give McFadden a chance to find a running lane to the outside, but even outside runs start inside.
While the Steelers run defense hasn’t been as good as it usually is (that is to say, they aren’t stopping the run at an elite level), they have been solid this season and are allowing just 3.7 yards per carry. The Raiders top two running backs are averaging just 3.9 yards per carry, so, again, this is a big game for the offensive line. It will also be a big test of McFadden’s ability to explode for a big play, and that’s a key to this game. The Steelers are susceptible to big runs, and this could be a matchup that McFadden owns if the offensive line executes by dominating the line of scrimmage.
2. What can Martez Wilson do?
Martez Wilson was a high third-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, but he was ineffective for the New Orleans Saints despite his talent and expectations. The Saints decided to cut Wilson loose earlier this week, and the Oakland Raiders were able to claim the pass rusher off of waivers. It will be interesting to see if they decide to start him at DE or OLB, because he is likely a more natural fit at DE but the Raiders could use an OLB more. I wouldn’t expect to see much of Wilson this week, but he is an intriguing option going forward and could end up working his way into the starting lineup if he shows up well enough. I wouldn’t get my hopes up on him, but I would watch for him closely; he has talent. He’s set to play as a 4-3 DE, and Wilson will have to be a more efficient pass rusher. I honestly think he showed enough flashes in his time with the Saints, and I don’t really understand why they decided to cut him. Oh well, one team’s trash can become another team’s treasure, and the Raiders will hope to turn Wilson into a quality starter. He has ability, and the Raiders will be hoping that he can be an effective bookend to Lamarr Houston.
3. The best player on the team
Speaking of Lamarr Houston, the man has looked like the best player on the team, and the Oakland Raiders absolutely have to re-sign this guy this offseason. Most of us focus on Houston’s pass rushing when talking about him, but it’s his run defense that has always been his forte ever since he came into the league. He has 25 tackles, three sacks, and a forced fumble this season, and he has been the Raiders only consistent pass rushing source this season. To be honest with you, the Raiders pass rush has been an embarrassment outside of Houston, who has done his job terrorizing quarterbacks this year. He is closing in on double-digit QB hits, and nobody on the Raiders does a better job of blowing up running plays than Houston.
His ability as a two-way DE makes him all the more valuable for the Oakland Raiders, and he’s in a position to make some massive bank this offseason. Raiders fans will surely hope that the team can find a way to keep him in Oakland, but the Raiders frequent attempts to re-sign Houston have been unsuccessful thus far. I would be surprised if Houston doesn’t test the open market, which is worrisome for Raiders fans. His agent is Drew Rosenhaus, and just about every team in the league would love to have as well-rounded of a defensive lineman as Lamarr Houston on their team.