By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — For those Pittsburgh Steelers fans watching the game against the Oakland Raiders Sunday at 4:25 p.m. at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., you better check the pre-game rosters.
The Steelers (1-1) could still be missing several starters, while the Raiders (0-2) have a revamped secondary. Since shutdown cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha left a couple years ago, Oakland’s personnel, as well as its coaching staff, has changed drastically.
“They’ve got a depleted secondary,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “They’ve got a lot of corners with injuries, so we’ll see how it goes.”
The Raiders went from second overall to 27th in pass defense last season, so management cleaned house in the secondary. DeMarcus Van Dyke, who was drafted in the third round last year, was claimed by the Steelers. They also dumped starters Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson and their backups.
Oakland used the NFL waiver wire to put together this year’s group, including former Pitt and San Francisco 49ers cornerback Shawntae Spencer, Phillip Adams from the Seattle Seahawks, Coye Francies from the Seattle Seahawks, Joselio Hanson from the Philadelphia Eagles and Pat Lee from the Green Bay Packers.
“Since it was a new coaching staff, I guess they wanted to bring in their own guys,” Van Dyke said. “They cut a lot of guys, so they’re still trying to find their own team. It’s going to take some time.”
Actually, the Raiders’ secondary doesn’t even look like it did a couple weeks ago, since Spencer (sprained foot) and Joe Bartell (shoulder) — the starters to open this season — are out of action. Spencer still could play against the Steelers, but Bartell is on injured reserve and out for the season.
“They have some good players that they brought in, and I guess they felt I didn’t fit in anymore,” Van Dyke said. “But I’m not trying to prove anything when I go out there. I’m with the Steelers, and it’s always a blessing when you get another shot. So, all I want to do is make the most of it.”
The 6-foot-1, 187-pound Van Dyke has been a pleasant surprise since he arrived, according to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. He has yet to register a tackle, but he plays on all the special teams.
“He’s done a great job,” Tomlin said. “He’s downed a punt for us. He was there for that play on that mishandled punt last week. I thought he showed awareness as a punt-return guy, pushing a gunner into the end zone who was trying to down a ball. Obviously, he’s been an asset to us in that area.
“But, quite frankly, the things that attracted us to him are the same things that attracted us to him when he came out in the draft. We thought that he was a long, fast kid with man coverage ability. We compared him very favorably to Cortez Allen and really took a similar approach to those guys.
“He was in that draft class with Cortez and Curtis Brown, and we’re thankful to have three young corners from a draft class just a couple of years ago in our program that are working to improve on a daily basis,” Tomlin added.
Allen is the only one among those three who gets any appreciable playing time, as he is the club’s first corner off the bench. But all three play heavily on special teams.
The Steelers’ three young receivers also are getting a lot of playing time, so Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders appear to be happy to share the wealth at this point. Add Jerricho Cotchery and tight end Heath Miller to the mix, and the Steelers are blessed with a group that rates among the best in the NFL.
“It’s cool,” Wallace said. “I always felt like we’ve had probably the best guys at receiver, as a group, so that’s a compliment to how hard we work and how much in tune everybody is. The coaches are always switching us in and out, and everybody’s getting a lot of snaps. Everybody’s fresh, so it’s cool.
“I just think that we work hard every day, and we don’t take anything for granted. We all have speed, and we all can catch short passes and long passes. Not too many teams have four guys who can do that, and that’s why I think we’re among the best. We’ve got to be the toughest, too, because we really took some big hits last week. But Cotch and AB, they got right up.
“We’re not the biggest guys, but we’ve got a lot of heart,” Wallace added. “We’re not scared of anything. We’re not scared to get hit. (And) when you see one of the other guys get hit, it makes you want to show what you can do. Landry’s a big hitter, but he wasn’t feelin’ it since he didn’t phase us.”
And with the way things are going for the Raiders’ in the secondary, the Steelers’ wideouts could have another big game this Sunday.