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Steelers to face Raiders secondary of unknowns

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Anthony Fasano of the Miami Dolphins dives for a touchdown during a game against the Oakland Raiders at Sun Life Stadium on September 16, 2012 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Getty Images)

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By Alan Robinson
Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

The Raiders' secondary looks nothing like it did when the Steelers played Oakland in 2010. Then again, it doesn't look much like it did a couple of weeks ago.

Don't know the names? Not many of the Steelers do, either.

The Steelers once knew what they would see whenever they met the Raiders: A lockdown corner in Nnamdi Asomugha. Some of the NFL's tightest man-to-man coverage. A very tough day at the office.

All that's changed as the Steelers (1-1) get ready for their first trip to Oakland since 2006, one that involves an element of curiosity to learn what cornerbacks will oppose Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.

“(They've got a) depleted secondary,” Roethlisberger said Wednesday. “They've got a lot of corners with injuries. We'll see how it goes.”

After the Raiders finished an uncharacteristically low 27th in pass defense last season, down from No. 2 the season before when Asomugha still hadn't left for Philadelphia, new general manager Reggie McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen shed every cornerback on the roster.

Gone are 2011 starters Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson, a pair of salary cap discards, plus their backups. In their place are a cast assembled mostly via the waiver wire: Joselio Hanson (Eagles), Pat Lee (Packers), Shawntae Spencer (49ers), Phillip Adams (Seahawks), Coye Francies (Seahawks). The latest: undrafted free agent Brandian Ross, picked up Wednesday off the Packers' practice squad.

Also cast off was DeMarcus Van Dyke, a 2011 third-round draft pick who has since landed with the Steelers.

“They wanted to bring their own guys in,” said Van Dyke, who was cut by Oakland two weeks ago. “McKenzie is a great guy, but he has new ideas. It's pretty crazy, but they're trying to find their own team.”

Opening-game cornerback starters Ron Bartell (shoulder) and Spencer (sprained foot) are injured; Spencer, the former Pitt starter, doesn't know if he'll be ready for the Steelers. Bartell is on injured reserve.

“It's a guessing game. We can't go in and watch film on a particular guy and how he plays his position; we can only work off their schemes and their zones and things of that sort,” Sanders said. “We're working hard to understand who's going to play over there and what they're playing over there.”

Even the style is changing.

“Most of the time Oakland plays a lot of bump, but now they're mixing it up with a zone and man at the same time,” Sanders said.

Raiders safeties Michael Huff and Tyvon Branch are solid, but this mystery cast of cornerbacks will be primarily responsible for trying to shut down Wallace, who has two touchdown catches; Brown, who has a team-high 11 catches; and Sanders, who averages 12.6 yards per catch.

“These guys are going to come in motivated,” Wallace said. “They want to keep a job or not get cut. These guys are going to have something to prove, so you've got to be ready.”

The Raiders (0-2) rank eighth in pass defense, but that's partly the result of the Chargers and Dolphins rushing for 295 yards. Reggie Bush ran for 172 yards and two touchdowns during the Dolphins' 35-13 win Sunday.

In a week when there are numerous questions about the Steelers' ability to get their 30th-ranked rushing game going, the best way to attack the Raiders might be up top and often.

“We need to take advantage of it,” Wallace said. “We need to be even more amped up, even more locked in, because we have opportunities.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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