By Christina Rivers

The Oakland Raiders are quietly improving in play under head coach Jack Del Rio and with Derek Carr at quarterback. With a 4-3 record after handing the New York Jets a 34-20 loss on Sunday, they are currently in second place in the AFC West behind the unbeaten Denver Broncos. It is the first time since 2011 that the team has reached four wins in the first eight weeks of the season. Many NFL insiders see them on track to push for a playoff berth with Carr as their leader. They enter Heinz Field looking to continue their winning streak.

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Oakland’s offense rides on Carr

In just his second NFL season, Carr has begun delivering to the Raiders what they saw in him that made them select him as the number 36 overall draft pick. In his past two performances, Carr has thrown seven touchdowns, leading Oakland to a combined 71 points. Facing a tough Jets defensive secondary, Carr delivered four touchdown passes, finishing the game with 23 completions on 36 attempts for 333 yards. Oakland hasn’t seen one of their quarterbacks throw that many touchdowns in a game since Rich Gannon was behind center in 2002. With the Jets blitzing at a higher rate that any other defense in the league, Carr was able to stay clean and make smart choices and throw it right over the pressure. “He’s always so calm, he’s our leader,” left tackle Donald Penn said. Del Rio praised Carr’s decision-making throughout the game.

Raiders sport balanced defense

With two young, but tested, guys in Khalil Mack and Malcolm Smith stepping up defensively, the Raiders have created a defense that has become stronger up front. Mack leads the team in sacks with four. Smith leads the defense in total tackles with 56 and has added three sacks of his own. They have been pivotal in helping Oakland contain opponents with strong rushing games, yet maintain pressure on quarterbacks.

Charles Woodson is the leader in the defensive backfield, showing that at 39 a guy can still be effective, quietly making statements with his five interceptions on the season. Against the Denver Broncos, Woodson took two passes away from Peyton Manning.

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Raiders to watch

With Carr throwing to nine different targets on Sunday, the Steelers have plenty to game-plan for. With Michael Crabtree, Marcel Reece and Amari Cooper as the top targets this season, it has been the play of Latavius Murray that has quietly made noise. Murray is fourth in receptions with 19 for 105 yards but plays running back. Murray has added 534 yards on 115 carries for three touchdowns, averaging nearly 77 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry.

On defense, the Raiders like what they’re getting from cornerback D.J. Hayden, a former first-rounder (2013 NFL draft). Hayden has an interception and forced fumble on the season to add to a sack, five passes defensed and 32 total tackles

Outlook

The Raiders have put together two winning games in a row by beating the Jets and San Diego Chargers in the last two weeks – a feat they also accomplished when they defeated the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns in succession earlier in the season. Entering Heinz Field, the Raiders are looking to take another win away from the AFC North by handing the struggling Steelers a loss as well.

With the performance of the Steelers being inconsistent from week to week, these two teams look comparatively even on paper. In total offense (yards), the Steelers are ranked at 11th in the league; the Raiders 16th (2,793 yards to 2,557 respectively). That balance could shift in Week 9 as Pittsburgh has lost Le’Veon Bell for the season due to an MCL injury. On defense, Oakland has allowed more passing yards than Pittsburgh, but ranks second in the league against the run. The Raiders are tied at ninth in the league for takeaways with 12; the Steelers have 11.

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Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a journalist and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied Exercise Physiology and Sports Psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL as well as a published author. Her work can be found on
Examiner.com.