Oakland (1-0) at Pittsburgh (0-1)
Sunday, 8:30 p.m. EDT (ESPN)
Heinz Field (64,450), Pittsburgh
The Bill Callahan era in Oakland got off to an impressive start against Seattle last week. Callahan was extremely happy with his team’s physical dominance as the Raiders jumped out to a 28-7 halftime lead en route to a 31-17 victory. They will look to continue their physical play when they visit old-time rival Pittsburgh. Both teams have major axes to grind with the Patriots following last postseason’s results. The Steelers talked all offseason about how the best team lost in the AFC Championship Game and carried a huge chip on their shoulders into Monday’s opener against the Super Bowl champions. Pittsburgh found itself embarrassed 30-14 on national TV, so now the Steelers will try to refocus and get ready for a Raiders team that is out to prove it’s not too old to make a run.
Kordell Stewart Al Bello/Getty Images
Steelers’ offense vs. Raiders’ defense
The Steelers’ offense struggled against the Patriots as QB Kordell Stewart (three interceptions and one fumble) had another tough game. Stewart wasn’t the only disappointment; the league’s leading rushing attack in 2001 ran for only 74 yards. Jerome Bettis (eight carries for 35 yards, one fumble) and Amos Zereoue (eight carries for 16 yards) were not a factor. The Steelers need to run the football to be effective on offense. Stewart made big strides a year ago, but Pittsburgh does not want him throwing the football 40 times a game (he had 38 pass attempts in the loss Monday night). Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey will try to get his unit back on track running the ball against the Raiders.
Oakland’s revamped defensive line passed its first test last week by shutting down Shaun Alexander (just 36 yards on 13 carries); the Seahawks’ back had torched the Raiders for 266 yards and three touchdowns last year. New DT additions Sam Adams and John Parrella had an immediate impact on the weak Oakland run defense. They will face a much better offensive line this week, however, matching up against Pro Bowl G Alan Faneca and G Oliver Ross. The Steelers will look to control and get movement in the A and B gaps to open up holes for Bettis. Adams and Parrella will look to stuff these same gaps and free up MLB Napoleon Harris to make tackles. Harris, the rookie who replaced longtime Raiders stalwart Greg Biekert, recorded seven tackles and half a sack against Seattle.
If Pittsburgh can power the football, then the passing game will open up. Wide receivers Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El were the only bright spots for the Steelers on Monday night. Ward should draw the coverage of CB Rod Woodson (eight tackles, two forced fumbles). Ward is one of the most physical wideouts in the NFL and Woodson loves bump-and-run coverage. Mularkey did a good job of moving Ward around and using motion to free him up against Ty Law, who was looking to beat up Ward at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing of his routes. Ward finished with eight catches for 90 yards and one touchdown, plus he drew two pass-interference penalties on Law. Receiver Plaxico Burress (one reception, 11 yards) will need to have more of an impact this week. Burress and slot receiver Randle El (six catches, 87 yards) will match up against CB Tory James and nickel back Phillip Buchanon. Randle El’s versatility will create problems for defenses this season. The crucial aspect to watch with these two units is the line of scrimmage. If the Steelers can run the football, they will win this battle.
Charlie Garner Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Raiders’ offense vs. Steelers’ defense
The Raiders had an easy time with the Seahawks, putting up 28 points in the first half and racking up 423 yards of total offense on the day. Running back Charlie Garner was the star, rushing for 127 yards and a touchdown on only 15 carries. He also caught five passes for 64 yards and one touchdown. Last year Oakland’s offensive line was a patchwork crew as C Barret Robbins and G Mo Collins played just eight games between them. Robbins and Collins are back healthy and the line dominated last week. They’ll face a tougher challenge this week against a Pittsburgh defense that was ranked No. 1 last year against the run. Of course, the Steelers did not resemble that unit against the Patriots. They missed tackles and lacked aggressiveness. While Pittsburgh allowed only 60 rushing yards, the Patriots -- who threw the ball 25 consecutive times during the second and third quarters -- didn’t really try to run the football. Do not look for the Raiders to follow this plan. Oakland wants to run the football to have a balanced attack. The Raiders will attack the Pittsburgh 3-4 with power and will not line up in as many formations. Linebacker Kendrell Bell (who suffered an ankle injury in the first quarter in Foxboro) is questionable for this game, but LBs James Farrior and Jason Gildon picked up the slack with 10 tackles each.
Quarterback Rich Gannon was efficient, intense and in control last week, completing 19 of 28 passes for 202 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Receivers Tim Brown (four receptions for 46 yards and one touchdown) and Jerry Rice (two receptions, 25 yards) were not called upon to have big games. They will look to make more plays this week against a Pittsburgh secondary that was handled by New England’s receivers. Cornerbacks Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington did not tackle well and played soft. You can rest assured the Steelers’ DBs will try to knock a few people around this week. Many people thought with Jon Gruden’s departure that the Raiders would fall back to their old ways with the vertical passing game that owner Al Davis loves. Do not expect to see that this week. The Steelers prefer opponents to line up in a base offense and throw downfield so they can blitz. The Raiders should run the football and use the short passing game.
Pittsburgh’s special teams were not the reason the Steelers lost to the Patriots this time around. The coverage teams held New England’s return game in check while new K Todd Peterson missed his only field-goal attempt. After missing some field goals during the preseason, Raiders K Sebastian Janikowski made his only attempt (27 yards) and was perfect on PATs. Punter Kevin Stemke averaged 48.5 yards on two punts. Field position will be one of the keys in this good matchup.
Steelers’ offensive line vs. Raiders’ defensive line
This matchup will set the tone. Pittsburgh’s offensive line did not play well in its opener. The Raiders’ run defense, which was porous at times a year ago, shut down Seattle’s running game. This week will provide a much better test of how much improved Oakland’s run defense really is.
WR Plaxico Burress vs. CB Tory James
You have to figure CB Woodson and WR Ward will be a good fight, so keep an eye on this battle. Burress did nothing last week and he must pick it up. James is the weaker corner and is susceptible to getting beat deep.
QB Rich Gannon vs. QB Kordell Stewart
It goes without saying that Stewart must rebound from last week’s disappointing performance and avoid turnovers. Gannon has to be ready to carry the load if the Raiders cannot run the football.
The Steelers’ offense looked nothing like the unit that converted more than 45 percent of third downs a year ago. Against the Patriots, Pittsburgh converted just 4 of 14 chances. The Steelers are much better than this, particularly with the addition of Randle El in the slot. However, their success on third down depends on their running game, which was non-existent Monday night. They were constantly in third-and-long and were shut down. Conversely, the Raiders were 7 of 12 (over 58 percent) on third down against Seattle. Both teams have the personnel to be successful on third down with good starting wideouts and third and fourth wideouts. They also have mobile quarterbacks and running backs who can catch the ball out of the backfield. The team that runs the ball effectively will have the easier time converting on third down.
Bill Cowher will have no problem expressing himself this week. His job is to quickly pick his team off the mat and refocus its efforts. Mularkey has done wonders for Stewart and must help the quarterback shake off a three-INT night. More importantly, Mularkey must rediscover the Steelers’ running game. In his first game as head coach, Callahan was very satisfied with the physical play his team showed on both sides of the ball. Callahan and offensive line coach Aaron Kromer must get the Raiders’ line ready to handle all the blitz packages Pittsburgh’s 3-4 scheme will launch. New coaches can help establish themselves by winning tough games on the road.
Oakland has a chance to make a strong statement, answering all the critics who have been questioning whether this team can win without Gruden and whether the Raiders’ window of opportunity was lost in the snow at Foxboro last season. The Steelers were embarrassed and silenced by the Patriots but they are a much better team than they showed. This will be a tough, physical battle between two good football teams that have something to prove. In a close game, Pittsburgh will pull out a victory in its home opener.
Reported by Real Football. Throughout the season the Real Football staff will bring you an "insiders"
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