Season opener: Oakland at Pittsburgh

Over the next few weeks, SteelCitySports.com will take a preliminary look at the upcoming season match-ups. For the most part, this is just idle speculation, but we can already anticipate (barring the unforeseen injuries) certain strengths and weaknesses of each opponent. How will the Pittsburgh Steelers fare in 2004? Let's start with game 1 against the Oakland Raiders.

Bill Cowher coached teams tend to start a season flat, though the slow start usually bodes well for playoff appearances. Or, does it just seem that way? Cowher is 5-7 in openers as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cowher has never had a losing season after losing an opener. In seasons when the Steelers start off with a win, their total record is 41-39, Cowher's only three losing seasons coming in the wake of an opening win.

The trick may be starting the season against a divisional foe, which comprises 4 out of 5 of Cowher's opening victories (most of his overall wins as well). Cowher tends to get his team to its emotional peak in November and December, then falling flat again during the playoffs. Revenge against the likes of New England does not seem to bring out the best in the Steelers.

The rivalry with the Oakland Raiders runs deep, but that did not seem to matter for the second game of the 2002 season, the Steelers simply turning the game over to the Raiders, not looking the least bit sharp. The Steelers usually get out-game-planned to start a season. Success for the Steelers is all about players showing up to play, willing the team to victory.

The Raiders will start either Rich Gannon or Kerry Collins, both experienced and savvy quarterbacks. Head coach Norv Turner is one of the keener offensive minds in the NFL and he knows Bill Cowher pretty well. Expect a well-executed game plan that exploits the weaknesses of the Steelers defense.

What are those weaknesses?

The starting safety tandem of Chris Hope and Troy Polamalu is relatively inexperienced. With Gannon at the helm and Turner playing mastermind, the Raiders will look to confuse the youngsters, looking to test them often and deep. Furthermore, Chad Scott is prone to play fakes and double moves. Cowher will anguish over breakdowns in coverage, which may lead to him putting the shackles on Dick LeBeau and the blitz.

But therein lies the counter to Turner's madness, the pass rush. The Raiders are still slow at wide out and the offensive line is in the process of reconstruction, with rookies Robert Gallery and Jake Grove likely seeing plenty of playing time in 2004. The Steelers also need not respect the running game, perhaps opting to run a nickel defense for most of the game.

The Steelers simply can't sit back and let Gannon, or Collins for that matter, pick them apart. Particularly if Jake Grove gets the start at center, the Steelers should blitz early and often. In the secondary versus the Raiders passing attack, the Steelers now hold an advantage in speed, something that has been lacking for a number of years. Gannon and Turner will be forced to work the underneath game, the Steelers with the size and speed to come up and make the tackle.

The Raiders should struggle to move the sticks if LeBeau is allowed to implement his scheme. The Steelers need to exploit the inexperience on the offensive line, or the experience at QB and WR will be the end of them.

Defensively, Oakland is slated to run the 3-4. While the Steelers main goal in 2004 is to run the ball better, the Raiders aim to stop the run better. Big Ted Washington at nose tackle should help, but there is not much behind him when he needs a blow. Warren Sapp seems like a poor choice for defensive end in the 3-4 scheme, not exactly noted for his run defense.

The Steelers should not fear using the two wide receiver sets that should command the Raiders to explore their base defense. If the game can be kept close, the Raiders will tire. Furthermore, Staley out of the backfield as a receiver should terrorize the back eight trying to learn the new and various nuances of the 3-4. Tyler Brayton should be particularly interesting to watch at OLB, if the Raiders do indeed carry out that threat. He'd make a pretty good DE in the 3-4.

If the offensive line is healthy, the Steelers should play ball control. However, a field goal duel between Sebastian Janikowski and Jeff Reed is not to the Steelers advantage. Pittsburgh would likely fare better in a shoot-out, which could happen if Cowher plays conservative defense as expected.

Ideally, at least for the rest of the season, the Steelers will terrorize Gannon while tiring out the Raiders defensive line with good ball control. Pittsburgh might well lose such a battle by a field goal or two, but they will likely win the war of the season.

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