What we learned: 5 leftovers from Steelers' ugly loss to Raiders
Five things we learned from Oakland Raiders 24, Pittsburgh Steelers 21:
1. Beaten linebackers
The trend started on the opening series when L.J. Fort and Jon Bostic were beaten on deep passes to tight end Jared Cook, who finished with seven catches for 116 yards.
The Steelers played a heavy dose of sub-package defense in an attempt to stop the rhythm between Cook and quarterback Derek Carr. It didn’t work. Carr, much like Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers one week before him, exploited the middle of the field with quick strikes.
The heavy reliance on the dime defense meant starter Vince Williams was on the field for just 36 of 67 plays. Bostic, the other starter, accrued 14 snaps. Little wonder they contributed one tackle (by Williams).
With his speed and agility, Fort has drawn the playing time in pass situations, and his 53 snaps were the most of any inside linebacker. Morgan Burnett, serving as the dime linebacker, was on the field for 33 snaps but was one of two players (along with rookie Terrell Edmunds) who couldn’t prevent a 39-yard pass to Seth Roberts down the seam that set up the Raiders’ winning score.
It’s time for the Steelers to revisit their personnel or strategy for trying to combat tight ends, particularly with Rob Gronkowski visiting Heinz Field this weekend.
2. AB neutralized — again
The All-Pro wide receiver had his least productive game of the season when he caught five passes for 35 yards.
Usually Brown is the Steelers’ big-play threat, and while he does have 12 touchdown receptions, he looked more like a possession receiver against the Raiders. Brown’s longest catch went for 13 yards, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger seemed to be comfortable targeting JuJu Smith-Schuster on his downfield throws.
That’s a commendable strategy considering Smith-Schuster had 130 yards on eight catches, including a pair of 1-yard scores, and he leads the team in receptions and yards this season.
Still, Brown wasn’t a difference-maker against the Raiders and that likely was through no fault of his own. His absence could be attributed to the Raiders defensive scheme, or perhaps it was because he had backup Joshua Dobbs under center for four drives in the second half. Or a combination of both.
3. Free real estate
In a departure from the first half of the season, the Steelers weren’t the most undisciplined team on the field. The Raiders were penalized 13 times for 130 yards compared to the Steelers’ two infractions for 14 yards.
Showing why they were 2-10 entering the game, the Raiders were called for five personal fouls, with three coming on consecutive drives in the second quarter. Two facemask penalties gifted the Steelers 30 yards of field position on the first drive, but it ended with no points when Chris Boswell pushed his 39-yard field-goal attempt wide right.
Another facemask penalty, this one on a punt return, gave the Steelers possession at their 47. The Steelers accepted the charity and scored a touchdown 10 seconds before halftime to take a 14-10 lead. Despite the Raiders giving away huge chunks of yards, this was the only time the Steelers capitalized.
4. Run-game issues
Jaylen Samuels and Stevan Ridley combined for 32 yards rushing on 16 carries while subbing for the injured James Conner. Coach Mike Tomlin, however, was quick to share blame elsewhere, hinting the offensive line didn’t do its part against a Raiders run defense that entered the game tied for last in the NFL.
Conner’s status will be updated Tuesday, but no matter who is in the backfield Sunday against the New England Patriots, the Steelers would benefit from the return of right tackle Marcus Gilbert. Nothing against backup Matt Feiler, who has filled in admirably, but Gilbert is considered a premium right tackle when he’s healthy. The problem is, he’s never healthy. He’s missed almost half the season with a balky ankle.
The Steelers have made a huge financial commitment to their line in recent seasons, giving each of the five starters big contracts in order to build continuity. The line was ranked the best in the NFL earlier in the season. It’s time for the big boys up front to regain that footing.
5. Hilton’s miss
The diminutive slot cornerback recorded his first sack of the season, and he pounced on a fumble to help the Steelers get their only turnover of the game. Hilton, though, also dropped a sure interception on a day when the secondary needed one against Derek Carr.
Hilton led the Steelers with eight tackles, but it was one he didn’t make that loomed large in the outcome. Hilton slipped while trying to cover tight end Derek Carrier on the Raiders’ winning 6-yard touchdown with 21 seconds left.
Thinking Carrier was breaking for the end zone, Hilton headed in that direction but lost his footing after seeing Carrier cut back toward the middle. That enabled Carrier to catch the ball inside the 1 and step into the end zone for the decisive score.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.