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The Inside Track | Xs and O's

Against Steeler Defense, All Things Come to Pass

September 21, 2002|LONNIE WHITE

The NFL is, and probably always will be, a copycat league. Whenever something works for one team, you can count on another, or several others, to switch to that something.

That was the case Sunday night when the Oakland Raiders aired it out in a 30-17 road victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon set personal and team passing records with 43 completions in 64 attempts for 403 yards and a touchdown.

All the Raiders did was follow the latest blueprint being handed around the league, showing how to dissect the Steelers' once-feared defense. It's a simple scheme that features a no-huddle attack and multiple receivers. Most people make the mistake of lauding Super Bowl champion New England for finding the cracks in Pittsburgh's pass defense, but the real credit should go to the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Bengals? Yes, the lowly Bengals.

Late last season, Cincinnati ended a seven-game losing streak by shocking the Steelers, 26-23, in overtime. The Bengals did it through the air.

Cincinnati Coach Dick LeBeau, a former Pittsburgh assistant, devised a spread offense that exposed his former team, which gave up 411 yards passing and two touchdowns to Bengal quarterback Jon Kitna, who will never be mistaken for Dan Marino.

Kitna made it look easy against the NFL's No. 1 defense, ending the Steelers' seven-game winning streak with an overtime touchdown pass to former UCLA standout Danny Farmer.

Fortunately for the Steelers, there was only one game left in the regular season and they did not see this attack again until the AFC championship game against New England. And if the Patriots did not copy the Bengals' entire game plan, they did use enough no-huddle spread-formation plays to give Pittsburgh problems defensively.

When New England played Pittsburgh again in their Monday night season opener, the Patriots exploited the Steelers' secondary even more as quarterback Tom Brady passed for 294 yards and three touchdowns. He completed 29 of 43 passes, throwing 25 consecutive times in one stretch.

That set the stage for the Raiders and Gannon. With Gannon throwing mostly to the veteran duo of Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, it's a wonder he fell short of matching Drew Bledsoe's NFL record of 45 completions in a game.

Oakland Coach Bill Callahan previously had told anyone who would listen that the Raiders would pay no mind to the Patriots' passing success against the Steelers and would try to run the ball. Yeah, right. Callahan is as sharp as they come and he has never been afraid to throw the ball, going back to his days as a record-setting quarterback at Benedictine University, an NAIA school in Lisle, Ill.

Attacking the Steelers' stop-the-run-first defense was tailor-made for the Raiders' ball-control passing offense. Callahan knew that he had enough quick receivers who could get into patterns fast and beat Pittsburgh's linebackers in the open field.

The key was catching the Steelers in their basic 3-4 defense. That was made easier by Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher, who figured that the Raiders would run on first downs and refused to use extra defensive backs.

Once the Raiders got the matchups they wanted, they were able to shift into passing formations without a huddle and that led to more success for Gannon, who completed passes to nine receivers.

Cowher's stubbornness is a major reason he's a successful coach. His teams usually play with his tough-mindedness. But he blew it this time by not having the right personnel on the field to stop the Raiders. He continued to use his linebackers on the Raiders' swift receivers. Big mistake.

Gannon was at his best on third downs. The Raiders converted 12 of 20 third-down opportunities, 11 on completions by Gannon. Altogether, he completed 13 of 17 third-down passes for 182 yards and a touchdown.

Because none of Pittsburgh's cornerbacks were good enough to shut down either Rice or Brown in man-to-man coverage, the Raiders exploited the Steelers' combination zones. Gannon's strength is his accuracy and he was able to find receivers who were open on short and intermediate routes.

It didn't take long for Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Tim Lewis to realize that his unit was in trouble. After all, he had seen it before. Three times, in fact.

Once Gannon got hot, the Steelers blitzed more, but they could not get to him quickly enough to disrupt his rhythm. The more blitzes Lewis called, the more big plays the Raiders came up with. That's going to be a problem all season for the Steelers unless players in the secondary start playing better.

"Guys that have to make plays need to step up and make plays when they get an opportunity," Lewis said. "Teams are going to continue to do the same thing until we put a stop to it."

Will the Raiders continue to throw 65 passes a game? No way. Expect Oakland to continue to feature a possession passing game, but the Raiders understand that they have to be able to move the ball on the ground, and they are stocked with capable running backs.

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