2006 and 2009, the only two seasons the Steelers missed the playoffs since Ben Roethlisberger was drafted also featured humiliating losses to either plain terrible or woefully underachieving (take your pick) Raiders teams. Certainly there were other things going wrong those seasons, but it's hard to take a loss to Oakland as another other than a metaphorical canary going through the death throes on the ground of the coal mine.
This time around, the Raiders are flirting with respectability coming in. All of their starting defensive linemen have at least four and a half sacks. Darren McFadden is finally starting to fulfill his incredible promise. Darrius Heyward-Bey still isn't doing shit, but then the Raiders have gotten surprise contributions out of guys like Jacoby Ford. A loss to this team wouldn't be quite as embarrassing, but it could still be devastating to a season that started so promisingly.
By even their own admission, the Raiders can't do what the Patriots did to the Steelers last Sunday night, which is to say, they can't spread out the offense and dink the defense to death. The fact that the Raiders live mostly by the run plays right into the strength of the Pittsburgh defense. Yes, BenJarvus Green-Ellis actually had a pretty good outing last week, but I'm really not overly concerned with the run defense. When you're getting beaten that badly through the air, it's hard to clamp down seriously on the ground game as well.
The big issue, obviously come with the Steelers line having to block Oakland's front four. The Steelers' O-line made the Patriots parlous pass rush look like they were the goddamn Giants last week. The problem with that is threefold: the line had to improve, Roethlisberger has to be more decisive when he has the luxury of more than a second to throw and Bruce Arians has to call more pass plays that rely on three-step drops and routes that don't take far too long to develop.
How much confidence do you have in seeing all three of those things happening? Probably not a ton. Getting Chris Kemoeatu back will help up front, but even a thoroughly terrible loss like the one on Sunday won't even be enough to get Arians to make adjustments. I can only hope I'm wrong on that score.
Hines being back should help the red zone offense significantly, which was a huge liability last week and a reason why the game got out of hand the way it did. The pass rush too will have to rebound in a big way. The struggles against the Pats were partially brought on by design. If you're going to let the opposition spread you out, you're not going to have as many pass rushers getting to the QB. That said, Woodley was uncharacteristically dominated by Vollmer. He has to play better. Timmons and Polamalu are dinged up as well, but all indications suggest they will play.
And then of course, there's the great undesirable unknown that is the debut of Shaun Suisham. Let's just say the receivers are going to have to be better about hauling in passes they get their hands on in the end zone.
I know this was good week to be down on this team. Plenty of fans were. It's understandable, to a degree. The Steelers haven't played all that well the past few weeks and it's seldom any Steelers team loses by as much as the team did last week. Good teams respond to those kind of drubbings. Let's not forget that the Pats were coming off quite an embarrassing loss of their own the previous week in Cleveland. It was a bad loss to a team we hate to see beat us, but at 6-3, I doubt the Steelers will come in Sunday feeling sorry for themselves. Now they just have to give themselves a reason to feel good about the season again.