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Raiders' Pryor continues to evolve as NFL quarterback

| Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013, 10:06 p.m.
Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor, a Jeannette graduate, looks for a receiver during the first half against the Chiefs on Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013, at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

ALAMEDA, Calif. — It was five nights before the best game of his NFL career, and Oakland Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor got a text message from first-year offensive coordinator Greg Olson.

Olson had been working on a game plan for Oakland's Week 5 test against San Diego, and he had just watched tape of Pryor's first career NFL start in the Raiders' final game last season, a 24-21 loss to the Chargers. Pryor completed 13 of 28 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns with one interception that day at San Diego. He made some electric runs and completed some clutch passes, but his footwork and throwing mechanics were as raw as a fresh wound.

As he watched that 2012 tape, Olson was struck by how far Pryor has come and how much he has changed in just 10 short months. According to Pryor, Olson's message to him was, “Your footwork and everything is completely different” than it was last year.

“He's right,” Pryor said. “I've made big strides and big steps along with the progress. I have to keep on working hard and understand you're never good enough.”

Pryor led the Raiders to a 27-17 win over San Diego, completing 18 of 23 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns while posting a career-high 135.7 passer rating. Pryor had the NFL equivalent of a reality check the next week at Kansas City, throwing three interceptions and getting sacked nine times during a 24-7 loss to the undefeated Chiefs.

But after regrouping during a bye week, the former Jeannette High School star will make his first career start against the Steelers, the team he loved while growing up, on Sunday at the Coliseum.

“The guy's come a long ways, man,” Raiders offensive tackle Khalif Barnes said. “I'm super proud of him. He's always had a good work ethic since he came in. He's just taken it to a new level. He's eager to learn. He wants to be a leader, and I think he's done a good job of doing that though his play and the way he carries himself on the field and the way he carries himself in the huddle.”

Pryor leads the Raiders with 1,061 passing yards and 289 rushing yards, which comes as no surprise for a dual-threat quarterback who passed for over 4,000 yards and rushed for over 4,000 during his high school career, and then passed for 6,177 yards and rushed for 2,164 at Ohio State.

The true surprise for many is that Pryor, the late Al Davis' last draft pick, secured Oakland's starting job in just his third season. When Davis acquired Pryor with a third-round pick in the 2011 NFL Supplemental Draft, the question was whether he'd have to catch passes instead of throw them to survive in the NFL.

Pryor played one snap as a rookie, played in only three games last season and appeared headed for another year on the bench. The Raiders acquired quarterback Matt Flynn — and his multimillion dollar contract — from Seattle on April 1, Then, after trading Carson Palmer to Arizona, Oakland made it clear the starting job was Flynn's to lose.

But it was during the offseason that Pryor, at Olson's suggestion, began working with Tom House, a former major-league pitcher and pitching coach who has also taught throwing mechanics to NFL quarterbacks such as Drew Brees and Tom Brady.

Before working with House, Pryor's passes lacked speed and accuracy. Now he drops back, plants and confidently fires fastballs that usually find their mark. He has completed 64.5 percent of his passes and has an 84.8 passer rating.

“I'm not where I want to be,” Pryor said. “I'm not having too bad of a year in terms of completion percentage. I'm having a real good year, actually. So I just want to keep the completion (percentage) above 65, 70, take what's there.”

Raiders cornerback Chimdi Chekwa, Pryor's teammate at Ohio State, said the quarterback “looks comfortable in the pocket” this year.

“Guys who've run a lot, young quarterbacks, a lot of times they get antsy in the pocket, they don't keep their eyes downfield,” Chekwa said. “Terrelle keeps his eyes downfield and looks to make plays, and I think that's been a big help for our team.

“I think he's really just figuring out how to be successful in the NFL. I think it's a challenge for anybody coming from college to the NFL, and even a bigger challenge for a quarterback to make that transition from college to the NFL. When you've been a guy who's been dominant in college doing certain things, and those things don't really transfer easy to the NFL, you have to find other ways to become better. I think he's done a good job of accepting that challenge and doing it.”

During the bye week, Pryor stayed in the Bay Area, but House flew up from Los Angeles and worked with him one day. Pryor also worked out with House's assistant, Adam Deducts, for two days.

“I got to spend time with them and clean up some stuff that they saw wrong,” Pryor said. “Got to see some film on my iPad and they just checked out things I've got to correct. So I thought it was pretty productive.”

When Flynn faltered during training camp, Pryor swooped in and won the starting job. The Raiders released Flynn shortly after a disastrous start against Washington, a game Pryor missed with a concussion.

Despite being just 24, Pryor has became one of the Raiders' biggest and most vocal leaders. After Oakland's loss to Kansas City, Pryor shouldered the blame, then boldly predicted the 2-4 Raiders would reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

“I let the offense down by throwing interceptions and losing us that game,” Pryor said. “I lost that game for us, plain and simple. People say, ‘Don't be hard on yourself,' but that's how I got here. I'm going to be hard on myself, and I'll never stop, no matter how old I am.”

Pryor's not backing off his playoff prediction. He pointed to the Raiders' narrow, 21-17 loss at Indianapolis and the fact they trailed Kansas City just 14-7 entering the final quarter.

“We're right there,” Pryor said. “I have belief in this team, and I know what we're capable of, and we're going to get better.”

Raiders coach Dennis Allen has no doubt Pryor will bounce back Sunday from his rough game at Kansas City.

“Everybody in the National Football League has had a tough game at some point in time,” Allen said. “How you respond to that says a lot about who you are and a lot about your character, and I think he'll respond well.”

Pryor said he has “a bunch of family” flying to Oakland for the game, but he knows that as the Raiders' quarterback and a team leader he can't afford to get too emotionally high against his hometown team.

“The main thing is not losing focus,” Pryor said. “I'm playing against a team that I grew up liking and I loved. I was a big fan of Ben Roethlisberger. I was in high school when he was with the Steelers. I was a big fan of him, big fan of the Steelers, big fan of Mike Tomlin, big fan of the owners. There's a lot of players on their team that were there when I was in high school still, a senior. You just have to go do what you're going to do. You've got to beat them. I want to beat them.”

Eric Gillmore is a freelance writer.

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