Steelers, Raiders back to basics

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> Back when it really was the best rivalry in pro football, there was no question the Steelers and Oakland Raiders would test each other at the line of scrimmage.<br><br> But what are we to expect from this great rivalry some 30 years later?

Will Rich Gannon throw 65 passes as he did here two years ago? Will the most porous run defense in the league last year be able to stop the Steelers? Will the Steelers, last year's 31st-ranked rushing offense, even try to run the ball?

Rest assured, nearly every answer points to a style of game these proud franchises used to play a generation ago.

First of all, the Raiders are back to their physical running game with Tyrone Wheatley, as well as their vertical passing game with budding wide receiver Jerry Porter.

As for the line of scrimmage, Sunday's game at Heinz Field should prove to be as physical and possibly as entertaining as these Raiders-Steelers games used to be.

First of all, the Steelers are intent on running the ball. Last year, the Steelers' run-pass ratio was 46-54. This preseason, their run-pass ratio under new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt was 64-36. They led the NFL in rushing this preseason with 171.2 yards per game, 30 more yards per game than the second-place Buffalo Bills. So the Steelers aren't likely to put the run game back on the shelf against the Raiders, who allowed 4.7 yards per carry last season.

The Raiders, though, placed as much emphasis on improving their run defense this off-season as the Steelers did with their run offense. The Raiders hired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who turned down a four-year contract offer to remain the outside linebackers coach of the New England Patriots. His first move was to bring in nose tackle and rent-a-run-stopper deluxe Ted Washington as a free agent.

Washington, 6-5, 375 pounds, was the centerpiece of the Patriots' 3-4 alignment. And with the Raiders and their new 3-4 alignment, Washington hopes to be the same.

"I was kind of surprised he left New England," said Steelers center Jeff Hartings. "I felt he made a difference on that team for sure, so I think he's going to make a difference with the Raiders."

In the preseason, the Raiders allowed opponents 3.8 yards per carry, down nearly a yard from last year.

Can Hartings, who endured knee problems last year, match up with Washington?

"My knee does get sore occasionally, but right now it's feeling real good and I'm real excited about our offensive line coming together," Hartings said.

Hartings' flanks - guards Alan Faneca and Keydrick Vincent -- will have to deal with seven-time Pro Bowler Warren Sapp, who came to the Raiders as a free agent and is being used as a 3-4 end over the opponent's weak link.

"I love it. I absolutely love it," Sapp told the Oakland Tribune. "In fact, I called back and told (Tampa linebacker Derrick) Brooks he might want to join in the 3-4 group. … I told him I wouldn't lie to you, dog. It fits like a glove."

The Raiders' other end is second-year man Tyler Brayton (6-6, 280), who was compared to Justin Smith last year as a 4-3 end, but could become the next Aaron Smith with 20 more pounds.

The underrated John Parrella will rotate with Sapp as the under tackle when the Raiders flip back to their 4-3. Former Patriots end Bobby Hamilton will play end for the Raiders in the 4-3. Their plan is to slip into and out of the 3-4 just as the Patriots did last year on their way to the title.

"With more teams changing to a 3-4 and the fact we've been together awhile as an offensive line, we don't get confused too often," said Hartings. "What it does is it forces you to go back and really understand the game and understand the roles on the play, and, when you understand that, it really doesn't matter what they throw at you."

The Steelers practice daily against a 3-4, and Hartings, Vincent and Faneca have to deal with nose tackle Casey Hampton. So the well-versed Steelers have a chance of neutralizing Washington and allowing their run game to attack an injury- and free-agent-depleted group of Raiders linebackers.

But what about blocking Sapp? Could Vincent handle Sapp if Sapp were to take a few rare snaps on the strong side of the field?

"Oh yeah, he can get the job done," said Faneca.

Vincent just might be the key to the game.

"Right, and I like it," Vincent said. "I like going into things as an underdog. I have to prove a lot of people wrong and I'm up to the challenge. I wouldn't have it any other way. A lot of people will see. I love it. I love it."

Will the affable Vincent have anything to say to Sapp once Sapp begins trash talking?

"I'll just smile and say, 'How you doing? How your mama doing?' I'll be alright," Vincent said. "Look, I know I've got a bad rap sheet, but jump on the bandwagon now. You'll see."

Vincent could just as easily have been talking about a great old rivalry that was in danger of growing soft. Instead, the Steelers and Raiders are hoping to turn back the clock.

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