Time for a breakthrough

If you want to get to heaven, you have to go through The Black Hole. And the Pittsburgh Steelers (2-4) hope the Oakland Coliseum, home of the 1-5 Oakland Raiders, provides such a portal.

The records, of course, strip the luster from this old and dirty rivalry, but the Pittsburgh Steelers believe they remain in the hunt this season, so a win today is vital.

"It's a state of emergency right now," said linebacker Joey Porter.

Porter returns to the lineup today, as does quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Both appeared fine at practice this week – Porter from a hamstring that kept him out of two games and Roethlisberger from a slight concussion that knocked him out last Sunday's game.

The only player expected to miss today's 4:15 p.m. game for the Steelers is nose tackle Casey Hampton because of an injured hamstring. He'll be replaced by backup Chris Hoke, who started 10 games for Hampton in 2004 and the Steelers won all of them.

Hoke, Porter and Co. will test an Oakland offensive line that's allowed 29 sacks this season. The Raiders are on pace to allow 77 sacks, or third most in NFL history. The weak link is left tackle Robert Gallery, the second pick of the 2004 draft. The Raiders drafted him instead of notables such as Larry Fitzgerald, Philip Rivers and Roethlisberger.

Instead, the Raiders will put quarterback Andrew Walter behind their porous line. Walter, a second-year player known better as Todd Heap's quarterback at Arizona State, has completed only 49 percent of his passes since replacing injured Aaron Brooks in the second game of the season. Walter's top target is Randy Moss, who's caught only 24 passes and scored three touchdowns.

He'll likely draw cornerback Ike Taylor and a safety over the top. The Raiders' second receiver, therefore, becomes important and that's where Jerry Porter hopes to step in. Porter just came off a team-imposed suspension Thursday, but Raiders coach Art Shell has not indicated whether he'll be active.

To run the ball, the Raiders lean on LaMont Jordan, who missed last week's game with back spasms. In his place, Justin Fargas rushed for 66 yards on 23 carries.

Jordan is expected back this week as the Raiders go up against their third 3-4 opponent this season. In previous matchups, the Raiders lost to the San Diego Chargers, 27-0, and the Baltimore Ravens, 28-6.

Defensively, the Raiders are first in the NFL against the pass (yards allowed per game), but that's likely due to the fact they rank 24th against the run and opponents haven't needed to pass against the Raiders in the second half. The Raiders rank 16th in defensive passer rating.

Their key defender is end Derrick Burgess, who leads the team with five sacks. He's the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Week after recording two sacks and deflecting an interception in last Sunday's win over the Arizona Cardinals.

The Raiders' defense includes rookie SS Michael Huff and rookie OLB Thomas Howard, and the anchor is veteran tackle Warren Sapp, who missed most of the practice week with an injury. The Raiders are young and beat up, and -- possibly to the Steelers' benefit -- are no longer winless. Not that it matters to the Steelers.

"I'm not even worried about the other teams," said Joey Porter. "It's about what we do, and right now we have to get the mentality where we go out there and finish games, period. It's not about the other team. I'm not going to sit here and talk about the other team because it's always going to be about us, and right now we're playing in spurts. We haven't gone out there and played a full game the way we need to play. Bottom line, that's it; no excuses. We're still a great defense. We gave up some plays that shouldn't have happened. Never supposed to get 41 points on us, and it happened. No matter how it happened, it happened. That's something that will never happen again."

The Steelers, of course, are coming off a tough overtime loss to the Falcons, but one player said after the game that the Steelers grew in the loss. That player explained how a championship team could grow at 2-4.

"The mentality of the team has improved, the fight," said defensive end Aaron Smith. "Guys showed they're willing to lay everything on the line to win that game. It unfortunately didn't come out our way but I think guys sensed that we grew as a team, came closer together in the fight and it brought us closer together."

Now they just have to come closer together with the division leaders. Through The Black Hole they go.


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