Steelers caution against opportunistic Raiders
If there's a Steelers theme for the week, it's this: Beware the Black Hole.
No, not the one that seemingly swallowed up their running game.
The Oakland Raiders (0-2) would appear to be just the floundering opponent a banged-up team wishes for at this stage of the season, especially with the chance to heal during an upcoming bye week.
The Raiders haven't finished above .500 in 10 years. They're off to their usual poor start. A bad long snapper and some ill-timed penalties cost them in a 22-14 loss to San Diego, and they were blown out Sunday by one of the NFL's worst teams, losing 35-13 to the Miami Dolphins.
New coach, new season, same old Raiders. And that might be the Steelers' biggest worry as they head to timeworn Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum — the last remaining multipurpose stadium to house an NFL and Major League Baseball team — on Sunday.
Twice in the past six years, Steelers teams coming off Super Bowl victories were tripped up by terrible Raiders teams, perhaps a forewarning as the Steelers (1-1) prepare for the only game in the first half of the season in which they will be heavily favored to win.
During their last visit to the so-called Black Hole in 2006, Ben Roethlisberger threw four interceptions only a week after receiving a concussion in Atlanta. The Raiders returned two for touchdowns, including a 100-yarder by Chris Carr, and upset the Steelers 20-13 — the last time that 2-14 team won all season.
“In my wildest dreams, I didn't think I would be playing this badly,” Roethlisberger said then.
Under the NFL's current concussion standards, he probably wouldn't have played at all.
Roethlisberger also was getting over a concussion three years later when the Steelers were upset by the Raiders again, a last-minute 27-24 loss at Heinz Field on Dec. 6, 2009.
That loss to a 5-11 Raiders team, and another five days later to a 5-11 Browns team, ultimately cost them any chance of repeating as Super Bowl champions.
Former Seton-La Salle quarterback Bruce Gradkowski threw three touchdown passes in the final 8½ minutes for Oakland; an 11-yard game-winner to Louis Murphy with nine seconds remaining came with backup safety Ryan Mundy in coverage because Troy Polamalu was injured.
Polamalu (strained calf) might not play in this one, either. Coach Mike Tomlin didn't sound optimistic Tuesday, saying Polamalu and linebacker James Harrison (knee) still aren't ready to practice.
Harrison hasn't played since last season; Polamalu sat out the 27-10 win over the Jets on Sunday.
“We are going to work day to day and look at how their body responds to work,” Tomlin said.
“We'll start with informal workouts and work up to practice at some point and see where it all leads us.”
Also limited when practice resumes Wednesday will be running back Jonathan Dwyer (turf toe), right tackle Marcus Gilbert (groin) and tight end Heath Miller (rib cartilage separation), although none of those injuries appear to be serious.
Then again, Tomlin didn't think a week ago that Polamalu's calf injury would keep him out of the Jets game.
As Tomlin cautioned about the dangers of the Raiders, who have lost six of seven dating to last season in part because they can't run the ball, he emphasized the importance of getting his own running game going.
The run game has matched its worst start in 22 years by gaining only 141 yards in two games, and Tomlin said even the game-clinching, 14-play drive Sunday in which the Steelers ran for 31 yards on eight carries was substandard.
“I'm looking for more than that, obviously,” Tomlin said. “I'm actually looking for better than that.”
Isaac Redman finished that drive with a 2-yard touchdown run but is averaging only 2 yards per carry on a team that is 30th in rushing yards and yards per attempt and 29th in total yards per play.
Maybe the Raiders will provide a helping hand; they've allowed 295 yards rushing, the fourth most in the league.
“We haven't run the ball as well as we have liked,” Tomlin said. “I'm not interested in assigning blame in that regard. … We need to tighten up our menu and lean on the things we are doing well. We need to block better and put the ball where it needs to be on a more consistent basis.”
Some help might be on the way: Rashard Mendenhall, the two-time 1,000-yard rusher recovering from a torn ACL that occurred in the final regular season game last season, is ready for full practice.
“We will thud him up a little bit on a day we are allowed to carry our pads and see if he can respond positively to it,” Tomlin said.