Steelers Seek Black Hole Breakthrough

Oakland's Black Hole (Stanton/USA TODAY Sports)

Mike Tomlin gave his players a history lesson on the Oakland Raiders this week, but those players are trying their best to forget their most recent trips to Oakland ...

... where the Steelers haven't won since 1995.

In 2006 the Steelers lost to what became a 2-14 Raiders team that could muster only 98 yards of total offense behind quarterback Andrew Walter. But Ben Roethlisberger threw 4 interceptions, including two that were returned for touchdowns, in a 20-13 Steelers loss.

Last year, the Steelers blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to lose to what eventually became a 4-12 Raiders team, 34-31.

So after two such embarrassments, is there any lingering residue?

"There's no residue. It's over," said Ryan Clark, one of five Steelers to have started in both of those ugly losses.

"What can you do about it?"

Clark, who just learned about the Immaculate Reception, the Ice Bowl, and the Criminal Element games from the 1970s, was told that a win this year might help salve the wounds.

"That would not make up for it," he said. "Just doesn't work like that. The Arizona Cardinals can beat us every regular season game forever and it's not going to take away that we won that Super Bowl. It doesn't matter because each game serves a purpose for the season, for that day. Unless we have another opportunity to play Oakland and beat them and we win some kind of crazy tiebreaker for the playoffs last year, then it makes up for it."

At 2-4, the Steelers, as Clark said, "are not a very good football team," so taking the 2-4 Raiders lightly -- as perhaps the Steelers had done in their last two trips -- won't, or can't, be a factor.

But the Steelers are riding a short wave of momentum coming into the game. They've won two straight and their offensive line played its best game last week, while their rookie running back -- Le'Veon Bell -- had a breakout game of sorts with 93 yards on 19 carries.

Roethlisberger and his receiving corps are healthy. The defense hit its goal by keeping the Baltimore Ravens under 17 points. The kicker won the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week award.

The Raiders, meanwhile, are coming off a bye week following a 24-7 loss at Kansas City in which Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor was sacked nine times and threw three interceptions.

Pryor, of course, was the former Jeannette High quarterback who won led the Jayhawks to the 2007 PIAA State championship, went off to Ohio State and became an immediate starter, but left a year early due to an NCAA suspension for selling memorabilia. He was selected by the Raiders in the third round of the 2011 supplemental draft, started his first game in the 2012 finale, and has been the starter for all but one game this season.

The 6-4, 240-pound Pryor has a respectable passer rating of 84.8 this season, and leads the Raiders in rushing with 285 yards on 44 carries (6.5 avg.).

With a sophomore-season 40 time of 4.33, Pryor's an easy comparison to Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III.

"They're both pretty big," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "Oakland's quarterback is bigger than any of those other guys. As I recall, he didn't lose too many games in college because of that. They couldn't get him on the ground. It's definitely going to be one of our big challenges, when he does keep it, to get him on the ground. He's like having another tailback in the game, really. He's a great athlete."

Pryor teams with a true tailback, Darren McFadden (267 yards, 3.9 avg.), in a read-option attack that ranks ninth in the league in rushing offense (No. 5 in yards-per-carry at 4.7). But their passing game ranks dead last, and the Raiders rank a notch below the Steelers at 29th in scoring.

Defensively, the Raiders are 12th in the league in yards, and tied with the Steelers for 13th in points allowed. The Raiders allowed 3.8 yards per carry, but their weakness is a secondary that ranks 27th in passer rating (98.6).

"I think they, overall, improved," said Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley. "I think the entire group is playing well together as a defense. (Charles Woodson) is obviously the leader of the group, a true veteran of the group. But you don't see any fall off in him. He's a legend. You have to believe he will end up in Canton. He is one of those guys that I describe as, the ball just kind of comes to him. If you have a chance to ever get your hands on one of those types of defensive players, you try to get them on your team because you want the guys that the ball comes to. When he gets it, he does spectacular things a lot of the times. We have to not allow that to happen."

Woodson, the 37-year-old free safety, has 56 career interceptions and 13 touchdowns, but only one interception this season. His sidekick, strong safety Tyvon Branch, will miss the game with an injury. The cornerbacks are Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins. Outside linebacker Sio Moore is the Raiders' only rookie starter.

On paper, the Raiders aren't a formidable challenge. But they haven't been much of one since those historic games Tomlin discussed with his players.

Formidable challenge or not, the Steelers have struggled in the legendary "Black Hole" of Oakland.

"You think of the people that have played in that stadium, the tradition, and the history," said Roethlisberger. "I like to see the rookies and young guys that haven't been out there, the first time they walk on the field and see the fans and the kindergarten teacher that's got her face painted and going nuts. To me, it's a neat thing because that's what football is about."

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