Close games have been the norm in recent times whenever the Las Vegas Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers have met for a clash between two of the AFC’s most storied franchises.
There’s good reason to believe it will be more of the same in the latest edition of this series, which takes place at Allegiant Stadium in front of a primetime national audience on NBC’s Sunday Night Football.
Eight of the 10 matchups between the teams since 2004 have been decided by seven points or less, and five of the past six (since 2012) have ended with a field goal as the final margin. That includes last season’s Christmas Eve showdown in Pittsburgh, in which the Steelers’ then-rookie tandem of Kenny Pickett and George Pickens connected on a final-minute touchdown pass to pull out a 13-10 win in what turned out to be Derek Carr’s last start in a Raiders uniform.
Our computer models are forecasting yet another down-to-wire affair in what our SmartRatings model ranks as the third most exciting game of NFL Week 3. The sportsbooks concur, with the hosting Raiders installed as a tepid 2.5-point favorite against an opponent it bears several similarities to in the early portion of this season. We also project the point total to be around 49, which is well over the sports betting over/under of 43.
Both teams come in at 1-1 by virtue of narrow victories behind fourth-quarter comebacks, with the underdog Steelers needing a Herculean defensive effort to get by the rival Cleveland Browns on Monday night and the Raiders eking out a 17-16 road win over the Denver Broncos in Week 1.
Both have also been on the wrong end of lopsided losses to potential Super Bowl contenders, as Pittsburgh was handed a 30-7 whooping by the San Francisco 49ers in its opener and Las Vegas comes home licking its wounds from last week’s 38-10 beatdown by the Buffalo Bills.
It’s also a battle of teams our projection model still gives a better than 50% chance of making the playoffs despite their uneven beginnings, provided each can overcome some glaring early-season offensive issues that we’ll break down in further detail below.
PIT: Improve the Passing Game
The Steelers would almost certainly be entering this game mired in an unwanted 0-2 hole if the T.J. Watt-led defense didn’t bail them out against the Browns. The unit came up with six sacks of Deshaun Watson and forced four turnovers, two of which resulted in direct defensive touchdowns that spelled the difference in a hard-earned 26-22 win.
That performance still didn’t overshadow a second straight lethargic showing from an offense that ranks 31st in the NFL in total yards and 30th in yards per play through the first two weeks and has now gone 50 consecutive regular-season outings since last eclipsing 400 total yards in a game. That streak is the longest active one in the NFL by a landslide, with the Arizona Cardinals’ 17-game run a far distant second.
There’s no question Pickett is still exhibiting some growing pains as the young quarterback operates with a running game that’s been virtually non-existent thus far, and too often attempts to force the ball to targets that have had trouble consistently separating. Steelers receivers have a combined open rate of 69.9% – the fourth lowest mark in the league – and will be missing top wideout Diontae Johnson for at least three more games with a hamstring injury he sustained in the opener.
Pittsburgh has also had to deal with a couple of defensive Goliaths in the 49ers and Browns and just might get a little needed class relief in the form of a Raiders outfit that’s been hardly intimidating.
Las Vegas often deploys a lot of two-deep zones designed to minimize its opponent’s big-play potential, and it’s a strategy that’s worked to some extent as the Raiders have allowed a league-low average depth of target of 4.7 yards on passing plays.
That philosophy still hasn’t left Vegas prone to being dink-and-dunked into submission, however. The Raiders have permitted a startling 81.7% completion rate through their two games and a 93.3% (14 of 15) rate on third downs, a big reason why they rank near the bottom of the league in third-down percentage defense.
Maintaining those tactics could lead to a favorable matchup for Pickett, who has shown himself to be solidly accurate on short throws and much less so on deeper ones during his brief tenure as Pittsburgh’s starter. The 2022 first-round pick posted a completion percentage of 74.4 on attempts between 1-10 yards as a rookie, which ranked eighth of 32 quarterbacks with at least 100 throws in that range. On attempts between 11-20 yards, Pickett was last of 36 players with a success rate of 37.5% (min. 40 attempts).
Another issue for the Raiders is that they create turnovers at an alarmingly low frequency, a problem that’s gone on even before current coordinator Patrick Graham’s arrival. Las Vegas has produced a meager three interceptions in 13 games since Week 8 of last season, and the franchise has gone 31 consecutive games (including playoffs) without recording two or more picks.
As the chart below shows, that stretch is among the longest by any team in nearly 75 years (though it’s still not the longest in team history).
Pickett went 3-3 in six road starts during his debut season. In the three wins, he wasn’t intercepted in any game and didn’t have a single pass attempt deemed pickable.
He threw a combined five picks in the three losses, however, while registering a combined pickable pass percentage of 6.11.
LV: Rediscover 2022 Josh Jacobs
Maybe it’s because he sat out all of training camp angling for a since-received raise on a soon-to-be-expiring contract. Or maybe the nearly 400 touches he got during a sensational 2022 campaign have had a cumulative and lasting effect.
Whatever the reason, the Josh Jacobs that has shown up for the first two games of this season hasn’t resembled anything close to the one that emerged as one of the NFL’s premier running backs of the last one.
The 2022 NFL rushing leader has begun defense of his title by managing a paltry 46 yards on 28 carries, none of which have gained more than 7 yards. Vegas’ moribund ground game as a whole has delivered only one play beyond 8 yards through the first two weeks, and that came on an end-around by rookie receiver Tre Tucker.
Jacobs was one of the best backs at evading defenders last season and averaged 2.29 yards after contact per rush, considerably above the league average of 2.07 yards per attempt.
HIGHEST% OF MISSED/BROKEN TACKLES PER TOUCH, 2022 (MIN. 200 TOUCHES)
- Dameon Pierce, Houston Texans (0.284)
- David Montgomery, Chicago Bears (0.268)
- Rhamondre Stevenson, New England Patriots (0.251)
- Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders (0.249)
- Tyler Allgeier, Atlanta Falcons (0.248)
The 2022 All-Pro has still displayed some elusiveness as a receiver so far this season, but the power doesn’t seem to be there as evidenced by the scant 0.96 yards after contact he’s averaging. That’s last in the NFL among those with at least 15 carries and is far behind the next player ahead of him – Miles Sanders of the Carolina Panthers (1.32).
Jacobs is still only 25, so there’s still hope he hasn’t yet gone the way of guys like former Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott and ex-Vikings standout Dalvin Cook – players who saw a steep decline in their effectiveness in their late 20s after building up years of heavy workloads.
The Steelers may help provide an answer, as they’ve yielded a league-high 386 rushing yards during their 1-1 start and are without a vital defensive cog in lineman Cameron Heyward, whose proficiency and value as a run disruptor was something we highlighted in last week’s preview of the Cleveland game.
Even with Heyward likely out until midseason, there are some indicators to suggest the Steelers’ problems in stopping the run are fixable. That 386-yard total is somewhat inflated by two runs of 65-plus yards the defense has allowed.
Take out those two plays, and the Steelers have permitted 252 yards on 67 attempts for a far more respectable average of 3.8 yards per rush.
Missed tackles have still been an early issue, however, and with an offense that’s been sputtering and lacks explosiveness, Pittsburgh can’t afford to continue to get creased by opposing running backs on a weekly basis to have a realistic chance of sustained success.
With a solid line that’s yet to surrender a sack of new quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and a strong trio of receivers in six-time Pro Bowler Davante Adams, Jakobi Meyers (who’s expected back after missing the Buffalo game with a concussion) and the so-far underutilized Hunter Renfrow, the Raiders have the parts in place to do some damage offensively.
Still, whether or not Jacobs can return to form may ultimately be the deciding factor as to whether this winds up as a merely average unit or a potentially very good one.
Las Vegas was 5-1 last season when Jacobs rushed for over 100 yards and 1-10 when he failed to hit the century mark, and they were gifted that sole victory when Meyers (then a New England Patriot) inexplicably tried a lateral on the final play that the Raiders grabbed out of midair and returned for a deciding touchdown.
The Raiders were able to overcome an unproductive performance from Jacobs in Week 1 against a mistake-prone Denver squad. That wasn’t the case, though, in last season’s meeting with Pittsburgh, which limited the standout back to 44 yards on 15 attempts.
Considering the pass-rushing prowess the Steelers possess with Watt and bookend Alex Highsmith, another one-dimensional showing could lead to an identical result.
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