Entering the second game in a three-week home stand, the Pittsburgh Steelers are in dire need of a return to the win column after two straight losses have knocked them down to 4-4 and virtually already out of the division race, losing their pole position for a Wildcard spot in the process.
After his opening drive, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s debut return from injury was a tumultuous one, throwing three interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter on consecutive passes that produced 10 game-clinching points for the Bengals. All eyes will be on him. As he goes, so goes the team.
Also of substantial, yet less immediate, note is watching DeAngelo Williams replace Le’Veon Bell. We have already seen this offense run with Williams as the primary back, totaling over 200 yards on the ground and three touchdowns during a two-game stint to start the season.
Williams is not Bell, but he is capable of producing. With the expectation of being the lead back for an entire half of a season at age 32, however, do not be surprised if the Steelers try to incorporate Jordan Todman, he of one carry this season, into the offense.
First-year left tackle Alejandro Villanueva has had issues in pass protection during his first two starts, being responsible for a few sacks, but much of his struggles have come with stunts. The Raiders have two quality edge rushers with which he will have his hands full.
With Matt Spaeth missing the game, expect Will Johnson to see an uptick in playing time as the second tight end. The last time Spaeth was out, the Steelers also used Chris Hubbard for a handful of snaps when they needed a third extra in-line blocker, so look for that as well.
Defensively, Stephon Tuitt is returning to the lineup, and he is expecting to go full-tilt, but I’m hoping that the Steelers have used his time off to realize that they have been potentially heading down a path toward which they could be running him into the ground.
Prior to his knee injury, Tuitt was logging an unsustainable number of snaps. With how little the Steelers use their base defense, and nose tackle Steve McLendon’s relative success playing defensive end last week, the team should be using him and Cam Thomas in a rotation to keep their defensive line fresh.
At the back end, Will Allen is also returning from injury, but Robert Golden has played well in his place, and Allen’s spot in the starting lineup was never secure. It is unclear who will start, but it is possible that both will play in this game.
The Steelers have notched at least two sacks in every home game this year, and have at least three in three games. Their 22 sacks currently rank fifth in the league heading into Week Nine, with their production skewed toward Heinz Field, and that will need to continue today against Derek Carr.
Finally, the Steelers have a new return specialist in the form of an old nemesis, claiming Jacoby Jones off waivers. While he has struggled, both with his performance and with an ankle injury, he could be an improvement for this team. What I will be interested in seeing is if he gets a crack at returning a punt.