Raiders step on Steelers and head into Bye-week

The Raiders can talk all they want to about running the ball, and it's a nice thought really. But after watching Rich Gannon slice the Pittsburgh Steelers apart with an aerial display that lit up the Pennsylvania skies Sunday night, Oakland might have to re-think its philosophy.

       

         Gannon, the third-oldest active quarterback in the NFL, had one of those games that only teen-agers who play Madden NFL 2003 can relate to. Taking a page from the New England Patriots, who a week earlier passed on their first 25 plays against Pittsburgh, Gannon masterfully assaulted the Steelers with his arm to lead Oakland to a 30-17 victory.

 

            The numbers Gannon put up are staggering: 43 completions in 64 attempts for 403 yards and one touchdown. All of them are Raider records and career-highs for Gannon, who turns 37 this December. And all of them were crucial for Oakland, which heads into its bye week sporting a spiffy 2-0 record.

    

            ''Rich at the helm gives you such an added dimension on what you can do as an offense,'' said Raiders head coach Bill Callahan. ''Once you program him and give him a volume (of plays) to memorize, he can regurgitate it at the line. It's just phenomenal. He has the keys to the car and when you have the kind of switches he has, when he pulls them it's something to watch.''

 

            Gannon's 43 completions were the second-most in NFL history, trailing only Drew Bledsoe who was 45 for 70 in an overtime game against Minnesota in 1994.

            And though the Raiders would surely love to keep playing to keep Gannon's rhythm going, they'll undoubtedly welcome the bye week if for no other reason than to give their quarterback a chance to rest his arm.

 

            ''We talked to the team on Monday before the Monday night game and we told them that we were going to throw it and throw it a lot,'' said Callahan. ''We wanted to set the table early in the week and let them know we were going to pass. I think this gives Tennessee something to think about.''

 

            As much as Gannon and the passing game dominated the highlights, the Raiders received big contributions from several people. Most prominently was veteran safety Rod Woodson, whose three fumble recoveries against Pittsburgh tied and NFL record.

 

            Signed in the offseason to bring some stability to the middle of Oakland's secondary, Woodson seemingly was always in the right place at the right time against his former team. His first fumble recovery stopped a Steelers drive near the Raiders goal line, the second derailed another Pittsburgh drive, while his third recovery came late in the fourth quarter and sealed the victory.

 

            Sebastian Janikowski added three field goals while Oakland's defense forced four turnovers, held Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis to just 41 yards rushing on 10 carries. And as a domino effect from Gannon's big day, the Raiders also had six receivers with 40 or more yards in receptions.

 

            ''The magnitude of this game is unbelievable,'' said Raiders wide receiver Jerry Rice, who had 11 catches for 94 yards against the Steelers. ''We came into a hostile environment and we found a way to win. Special teams played well, defense played well and the offense played well. I think we pretty much wore (Pittsburgh) down.''

 

            The Raiders came out throwing a plethora of looks at the Steelers in the first quarter, starting with an empty-backfield and four wideouts. Then Oakland went to a no-huddle with one back and three receivers. Then the Raiders went back to a huddle and lined up with two backs.

 

            At times it seemed as if Oakland was taking a page out of New England's playbook. The Patriots passed on their first 25 plays in thumping the Steelers a week earlier, and the Raiders came out with a similar plan. Quarterback Rich Gannon passed on the first 10 plays from scrimmage, completing nine of them, with the offense moving efficiently downfield. The drive eventually stalled at the Pittsburgh 23-yard line following an intentional grounding call against Gannon and Oakland had to settle for a 41-yard field goal from Sebastian Janikowski.

 

            The Steelers tried to keep pace with the pass-happy Raiders. Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart came out throwing as well and had even better success. Though he only passed five times Stewart completed each one, including a 34-yard touchdown to wide receiver Hines Ward. Ward slipped past Oakland cornerback Tory James, who looked as if he expected help from safety Derrick Gibson. Gibson got caught up in traffic, though, and wasn't within 15 yards of Ward, who scooted untouched into the end zone to help give Pittsburgh a 7-3 lead.

 

            Gannon continued to attack the Steelers through the air, though, and Pittsburgh had trouble adjusting. With Gannon connecting on five of his first six throws, the Raiders quickly moved from their own 29 down to the Steelers' 36. With the defense reeling, Oakland called for a rare running play and it worked to perfection as Charlie Garner followed blocks by Barry Sims and Matt Stinchcomb on the left side of the line then broke into the clear on his way to a 36-yard touchdown run.

 

            Leading 10-7, Oakland was on the verge of putting Pittsburgh into an even deeper hole when Steelers linebacker Joey Porter stepped in front of a Gannon pass and intercepted the Raiders at the 2-yard line, returning it to the 29.

 

            But the Steelers failed to make anything out of the turnover. Even after a pass interference call against Charles Woodson set Pittsburgh up at Oakland's three-yard line, the Steelers couldn't get into the end zone. A fumbled exchange between Stewart and center Jeff Hartings coughed the ball up at the five where the Raiders' Rod Woodson recovered.

 

            That turned out to be the most pivotal play of the game because instead of a tie or possible lead, Pittsburgh lost possession and could only watch as Gannon continued to slice the Steelers' secondary apart.

 

            After taking a five-yard sack on Oakland's first play of its ensuing drive, Gannon was masterful in marching the Raiders to their second touchdown. He completed passes to five different receivers, including a 24-yard shovel pass completion to Terry Kirby on a third-and-15 play. Gannon later hit wide receiver Jerry Porter streaking down the middle of the field for a 21-yard touchdown that helped make it 17-7.

 

            All of this against a defense that was No. 1 overall last season.

            The Steelers only saving grace came late in the second quarter when Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala blocked a Kevin Stemke punt to set up a Todd Peterson field goal as time expired in the first half, pulling Pittsburgh within 17-10.

 

            Lost in Oakland's aerial highlight show in the first half was the play of the Raiders' defense. A week earlier they held Seattle to a mere 186 yards of total offense, but the Seahawks were without their starting quarterback and two-fifths of their offensive line. As one of the AFC preseason favorites, the Steelers were a better litmus test for Oakland.

 

            ''I think we kind of caught them by surprise with some of the things we did,'' said Raiders right tackle Lincoln Kennedy. ''We were able to keep Rich clean and he just did his thing.''

            Janikowski's 45-yard field goal early in the third quarter extended Oakland's lead to 20-10 and the Raiders appeared ready to pile it on even heavier when Gannon was again intercepted by Joey Porter near the goal line. This time Porter took the ball back nearly the length of the field, setting up a short touchdown pass from Stewart to Ward that pulled Pittsburgh within three of the Raiders.

 

            But just as quickly as the Steelers' hopes were revived, they were dashed again on the ensuing kickoff. That's when Oakland's Terry Kirby fielded the kick at his own four-yard line, broke through a hole in Pittsburgh's coverage near midfield then scampered the rest of the way untouched into the end zone for a 96-yard return for touchdown.

 

            With Oakland's defense forcing fumbles on three of Pittsburgh's first four possessions of the fourth quarter, that was more than enough for the Raiders. Janikowski tacked on another field goal to account for the final score before Charles Woodson intercepted a desperation pass from Stewart to end the game.

           

 

 


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