Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023 | 2 a.m.
• Who: Steelers (1-1) at Raiders (1-1)
• When: 5:20 p.m.
• Where: Allegiant Stadium
• TV: KSNV, Channel 3
• Radio: Raider Nation Radio 920 AM, KOMP 92.3 FM
• Betting line: Raiders -2.5, over/under: 43
The Sunday Night Football theme song blared out of the speakers Wednesday as the Raiders returned to their home practice field in Henderson for the first time in nearly two weeks.
The Raiders look refreshed and motivated after spending more than a week away, mostly in isolation practicing in West Virginia before finishing with a blowout 38-10 loss at the Buffalo Bills.
Las Vegas will be the final NFL team to make its home debut Sunday night when it looks to keep pace atop the AFC West. The loss to the Bills might have been ugly, but splitting a pair of road games to start the season isn’t all that bad of a result overall. The Raiders were underdogs in both and pulling a Week 1 upset in Denver put them in decent position divisionally.
The Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers are both winless through two weeks, leaving the Kansas City Chiefs and Raiders as the early leaders of the pack.
Favorable matchup: Steelers’ young offense vs. Raiders’ rebuilt defense
The Raiders’ defense might need a confidence boost after getting trampled by the Bills, which marched into the red zone on six straight possessions to pull away last Sunday. Getting to face the Steelers could provide one considering their offense has arguably been the worst in the league through two weeks. At the very least, this should be a fairer fight between two units still trying to find their footing. Steelers second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett has hit a couple big plays, including a 71-yard touchdown to second-year receiver George Pickens in a 26-22 Monday Night Football win over the Browns, but has otherwise looked uncomfortable. He rates last in the NFL in QBR. But he’s faced the 49ers and Browns, two of the best defenses in the league, and the Raiders look to be a clear step down. Las Vegas failed to get consistent pressure on quarterback Josh Allen last week especially with the defensive line as Buffalo continually double-teamed Pro Bowler Maxx Crosby. The Raiders need someone else to emerge to free up Crosby. Either the Steelers’ offense or Raiders’ defense should break out Sunday, and that may determine who wins the game.
“These are the kinds of games we’re here for. This is what you do it for — a great opponent, two great organizations…Sunday Night Football, Allegiant Stadium. I’m excited for our fan base and our guys are fired up for the opportunity.” -Coach Josh McDaniels on how he feels heading into the home opener
“I know that it may not be realistic, but I never want to lose a game. Most of the time, I don’t even want to lose a play. That’s just how I’m wired. The games that I do lose or the plays where I mess up, I take that personally. For me, I don’t have that type of mentality.” -Running back Josh Jacobs on why he takes no satisfaction in the 1-1 start to the season
“We talk about being calm in the storm. There’s a lot of hectic chaos going on. It’s controlled violence for us. It’s something we look forward to. We love when the pressure comes on us. We’re just going to stick together and keep playing football.” -Spillane on his message to teammates as a leader of the defense
“I always tell people, ‘No matter where I go, I want to be the fastest on the field.’ So (the NFL is) fast but you’ve got to have the mindset that no one can run with you. The mindset is everything.” -Rookie receiver Tre Tucker on adjusting to the speed of the NFL after debuting last week and making the Raiders’ longest play of the day on a 34-yard jet sweep
Problematic matchup: T.J. Watt vs. Raiders’ offensive line
The youngest Watt brother, and 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is up to his old tricks to start the season. The 28-year-old was the biggest reason the Steelers were able to upset the Browns coming off a humbling 30-7 Week 1 loss to the 49ers. Watt scored the game-winning touchdown when he scooped a fumble for a 16-yard score, but his impact was felt way before the decisive play. Watt had a sack, two tackles for loss and four quarterback hits in the victory. He’s currently leading the NFL with 12 pressures on the season. Watt could be a matchup nightmare for the Raiders’ offensive line, which has pass-blocked well to start the season but remains unsettled at the right tackle position across from where Watt will typically line up. Las Vegas has bounced between veteran Jermaine Eluemunor and second-year player Thayer Munford at the spot or fielded them both with “jumbo” packages giving them an extra primary blocker instead of a receiving threat at tight end. The Raiders will surely double-team Watt often, but that doesn’t always work as he’s skilled enough to fight through the extra attention.
Gamebreaker: Linebacker Robert Spillane
The linebacking corps has arguably been the Raiders’ best defensive positional group through two games, and the former Steeler is one of the biggest reasons why. The 26-year-old leads the team with 21 tackles and, against his reputation, has rated out higher in pass coverage than run defense by Pro Football Focus’ grading metrics. The former undrafted free agent out of Western Michigan spent his last four NFL seasons as a reserve with Pittsburgh but Las Vegas signed him in free agency with hopes that he could elevate into an every-down player. So far, it’s worked. Spillane is the Raiders’ only defender who hasn’t missed a single snap yet this year, and he was voted team captain going into the season. He speaks highly of his time with the Steelers but will surely have some extra motivation going up against a former team that never gave him as much opportunity as his current squad.
Big Number: 3-3
That’s the Raiders’ record in primetime games at Allegiant Stadium through three seasons. They had three home primetime games in each of their first two local seasons before winding up with none a year ago as its only planned Sunday Night Football contest was flexed out of the time slot. Las Vegas currently has four on the schedule this season. After the Steelers game, the Raiders host the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football in Week 5, the New York Jets on Sunday Night Football in Week 10 and the Chargers on Thursday Night Football in Week 15. The players say there’s still some extra magic in playing a standalone game knowing a larger fan base including the rest of the league is tuned in. Even with last year’s drought, getting two home primetime games per year is above average across the NFL as a whole. The league has made an effort to showcase the new $2 billion venue regularly, especially with Super Bowl 58 scheduled there in February, and it’s up to the Raiders to defend it.
Best Bet (1-1): Pat Freiermuth over 32.5 receiving yards
The Steelers figure to try to design some easy completions for Pickett, and targeting their third-year tight end more often might be one of the best ways to do it. Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s schemes have traditionally given up yards to tight ends, and this year seem to be veering even more into a bend-but-don’t-break strategy where underneath routes are open.It’s been a slow start to the year for Freiermuth, who has only two catches for five yards, but that offers a buy-low opportunity in this game. His over/under receiving total for Week 1 against the 49ers was 38.5, and shaving off six yards in a more favorable matchup feels unnecessary.