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High-powered Steelers offense suddenly on fumes

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PITTSBURGH — It’s a question the Steelers didn’t think they would ever have to answer in 2015. But it’s the most pressing issue as they enter the second half of the season.

How can they score more?

Entering the season the goal for the offense was to average 30 points per game. That proclamation was made by none other than quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who led the offense to an average of 31.2 over the final 10 games of last season.

After the first eight games this season, due to a myriad of injuries to their top offensive players, the Steelers rank 22nd in the NFL in scoring. They are averaging just 21 points per game.

Over the past two games the Steelers have scored only 13 and 10 points. They have been held to 13 points or fewer three times in the first eight games. Roethlisberger played in six-plus quarters of those games, two quarters plus against the St. Louis Rams (a 12-6 victory) and the entire game against the Cincinnati Bengals (a 16-10 loss).

The previous time the Steelers scored 13 points or fewer three times in the same season was 2011. They did it four times that season and went 12-4, mostly because they had the top-ranked defense in the league.

They don’t have that luxury this season. The defense is definitely better than many believed it would be, but it hasn’t been enough to carry the team to victories the past two games.

The main reason for the offense’s lack of production is injuries. All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell was the latest to go down with a season-ending injury. He injured his right knee in Sunday’s 16-10 loss to the Raiders. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum was lost for the season with a knee injury, and All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey is likely done for the season with a leg injury though a slight chance remains that he could return.

When asked what a realistic goal for scoring is now after all the injuries, Roethlisberger said: “Don’t see why anything has changed, and it shouldn’t.”

Added receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey: “We’re the type of team, we don’t panic. Guys go down all the time, and the backups do a great job. We’re ready to go. We’re prepared just like we’re starters. We don’t think much about the injuries. We just go out there and play football.”

The Steelers begin the second half of the season Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, and they have a chance to get off on the right foot against one of the league’s worst pass defenses. The Raiders are 31st in the league in pass defense, allowing a whopping 302.1 yards per game.

The Raiders gave up 384 passing yards to Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens and 336 yards to Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers. They are tied for 18th in the league in scoring defense, yielding 24.7 points per game.

“We’re closing the chapter on the first half of the season,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s a good thing. We can move on. We don’t have to talk about it. There were some negatives in that first half. We can close it, move forward and be our best self going forward now.”

SERIES HISTORY: 22nd regular-season meeting. Raiders lead series, 12-9 and have won the previous two meetings, including a 21-18 victory in Oakland in 2013. The series is tied at five games apiece in Pittsburgh. The Steelers are undefeated against the Raiders in the month of November with a 3-0 record. These two teams have met six times in the postseason, with each team winning three apiece. The Raiders won the most recent playoff meeting, 38-10, in 1983.

GAME PLAN: With a shaky performance from Ben Roethlisberger in his return against the Bengals, look for the Steelers to try some different things to jump-start the passing game. That could include more no-huddle offense, something Roethlisberger enjoys.

The Steelers ran the no-huddle for seven snaps in the first half of the Bengals, including three on their only touchdown drive, and totaled 147 yards on 19 snaps in the no-huddle for the game, an average of 7.7 yards per play. Considering the Steelers averaged 5.3 yards per play for the game overall, it’s easy to see why offensive coordinator Todd Haley would give Roethlisberger the green light to use it more against the Raiders.

But don’t expect the Steelers to abandon their running game. They feel completely comfortable with DeAngelo Williams filling in for the injured Le’Veon Bell and will not be afraid to use him. He was very effective in the first two games when Bell was serving a suspension.

On defense, the Steelers will look to pressure second-year quarterback Derek Carr. That’s easier said than done the way the Raiders have protected him, but the Steelers have done a very good job of pressuring quarterbacks and collapsing pockets. Look for defensive coordinator Keith Butler to try to do the same against the Raiders even though they have been effective in pass protection.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

–Steelers front seven vs. Raiders offensive line. The Steelers are fifth in the NFL in sacks with 22 while the Raiders are fourth in the league in sacks allowed, yielding just 10 so far through seven games. Rookie outside linebacker Bud Dupree leads the Steelers with four sacks.

–Steelers secondary vs. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, who is 10th in the NFL in passing with 265 yards per game. The Steelers give up big passing yardage (269.5 per game), but they have been opportunistic by intercepting seven passes.


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