Even with their worst home loss since 2006 fresh in their minds and an injury list that keeps growing, the Pittsburgh Steelers say they’re not headed for another midseason collapse.
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Beating a team that played a significant part in last season’s downfall would be a good way to prove it.
The Oakland Raiders were in last place when they stunned the Steelers at Heinz Field last year, but they’ll be looking to keep at least a share of the AFC West lead by earning a fourth straight win Sunday.
Through the first half of this season, Pittsburgh seemed to show few similarities to the team that lost five in a row in 2009. That slide, however, began after a 6-2 start, the same record the Steelers brought into Sunday night’s showdown with New England.
Pittsburgh (6-3) didn’t look anything like a team that could take over sole possession of first place in the AFC North, letting Tom Brady throw for 350 yards in a 39-26 loss.
The defeat was the Steelers’ worst at Heinz Field since falling 31-7 to Baltimore on Dec. 24, 2006.
"You can’t start dredging up things from the past,” safety Ryan Clark said. "This is one night, and one night we need to get better from. Obviously, for our defense, it hurts more because we’re not used to playing this way. We’re not used to giving up yardage the way we did.”
Big days by opposing quarterbacks turned into a theme for the Steelers in last season’s second half with safety Troy Polamalu sidelined. However, Pittsburgh has been getting routinely burned in 2010 with the former All-Pro healthy.
Pittsburgh has allowed 272.6 passing yards per game since Oct. 17, sixth most in the league.
"We did take a hit. No excuses," cornerback Ike Taylor said. "We have to come back and do what we need to do, feed off of this and make sure it doesn’t happen again."
The performance cost one Steeler his job. Jeff Reed was cut two days after missing a 26-yard field goal – his seventh miss of the season. The team replaced him with Shaun Suisham.
The Steelers led or were tied in the fourth quarter of the first four losses during their ’09 skid, but in no quarter were they worse than the fourth against the Raiders on Dec. 6. Bruce Gradkowski helped Oakland pile up 223 yards in the final 15 minutes and the Raiders scored three touchdowns in the last 8:21 of a 27-24 victory.
That was a Raiders team that was more than a two-touchdown underdog heading in at 3-8, but Tom Cable’s club is no longer playing spoiler. Oakland (5-4) has won three straight, the latest 23-20 over Kansas City on Nov. 7.
The Raiders then experienced their best week off in quite a while. Denver’s win over the Chiefs lifted Oakland into a tie atop the division, the first time it’s been there this late in the season since 2002.
That was the last time the Raiders won at least four straight, part of a five-game run.
"People are really going to start talking about us for playoff contention if we do that,” safety Mike Mitchell said. "Everything that we’ve done up to this point is going to come down to what we do Sunday. We just want to keep all that momentum going.”
This time at Heinz Field, they’ll have Jason Campbell under center. Cable initially said Pittsburgh native Gradkowski would regain the starting job when he recovered from a shoulder injury, but Campbell has given the offense a boost. He’s thrown five touchdowns and one pick while posting a 104.3 passer rating during the winning streak.
In Darrius Heyward-Bey and Jacoby Ford – who had 306 all-purpose yards against the Chiefs – the Raiders certainly have the speed to give the Steelers’ secondary trouble again. Additionally, tight end Zach Miller and receiver Louis Murphy – who caught two touchdowns last season in Pittsburgh – are expected to return.
Darren McFadden, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, will be facing a Pittsburgh run defense that gave up 100 yards against New England for the first time since end Aaron Smith was injured.
Leading tackler Lawrence Timmons has a hip pointer, but is likely to play Sunday.
Who’s healthy on either side could play a big role in what Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers do. Guard Chris Kemoeatu and receiver Hines Ward are expected back for Pittsburgh, while star cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and tackle John Henderson are questionable for Oakland.
The Raiders have surrendered 236.0 yards per game during their winning streak.