Ho..lee...expletive. What a game. I mean, how the...what the...where the? Whatever happened at Heinz Field on Sunday, it was unexpected. I don't know anyone who was expecting the Steelers to drop their fourth straight or that the Raiders would be the team to do it. But what started out as a stand-off, ended with a shoot-out. With Pittsburgh clinging to a 10-6 lead going into fourth quarter, neither team felt very comfortable. And that's when things suddenly got much more interesting.
The Steelers would miss a field goal to start off the fourth quarter and then both teams would exchange scores on every single drive for the rest of the game. Five lead changes to be exact; and all were touchdowns. It came down to who had the ball last. And in this case it was the Raiders who would score the final TD with just 9 seconds left on the clock.
So let's tally up those who kept the Raiders in the game through three quarters, and made the plays to pull out the win along with those who nearly thwarted those efforts.
He didn't show up in the stat line until the fourth quarter, but when he showed up, he made his presence felt. His first catch was one in which he burned his man to get wide open on a slant pattern and took the pass 75 yards for a touchdown. The end of the catch and run he faked out the corner and tip toed the sideline to stay in bounds and get the pylon. The catch gave the Raiders a 20-17 lead. Then after the Steelers regained the lead, Murphy had a brilliant drive. He caught three passes on that drive. The first went for 19 yards to put the Raiders in Steeler territory. The second was a wobbling duck thrown by Gradkowski that Murphy came back to and high pointed the ball to keep it from the defender and pick up 23 yards. His third catch, he got open in the end zone and caught it for the final touchdown to seal Raider victory. Those four catches were good enough for 128 yards and 2 touchdowns to lead all Raider receivers. I watched the Florida Gators lose to Alabama on Saturday and it was clear to me that what separates this Gators team from it's national championship team last year is having a savvy receiver like Louis Murphy.
While he may have started out slow in this game, there is something to be said for the fact that he still didn't do anything to put the Raiders in a hole they couldn't dig themselves out of. No stupid mistakes and no turnovers. He led the Raiders to two scores in the first half. On the second scoring drive he completed a 16 yard pass, escaped a sack despite a fasemask, scrambled for 20 yards that was negated by a holding penalty, and threw a 22 yard pass to put the Raiders in field goal range. He kept the Raiders within one score heading into the fourth quarter. And that is where he really turned it on and did his damage-- in the clutch. The first drive in the fourth quarter, he picked up two first downs with his feet. Then he finished it off with a 17 yard touchdown strike. The most important part of the touchdown pass was how he sold a pitch fake right to Fargas that fooled the defense and then he threw to Schillens crossing left. Then after the Steelers scored a touchdown on just two plays, Gradkowski said "Oh yeah? I can do that too" and on the third play of the drive he threw a 75 yard touchdown strike to Louis Murphy to take the lead right back. Then the Steelers marched down the field to score a touchdown and re-re-take the lead with just two minutes left on the clock, Gradkowski said "HA! That's nothing‘, two minutes is all I need." With the Raiders starting on their own 12 yard line, he drove them 88 yards to score the game winner. Along the way he had a 17 yard completion, a 12 yard pass, a 19 yarder, a near interception, the miracle 23 yard duck completion, and the final 11 yard touchdown pass. He went 22-33 for 308 yards and three touchdowns on the day. He was the first Oakland QB to pass for over 300 yards since Dante Cullpepper did it way back in 2007. And after two previous failed attempts by the Pittsburgh native while with the Browns and Bucs, Gradkowski finally had a happy homecoming game. Good timing if you ask me.
As usual, he ground out the tough yards. His longest gain was just 13 yards but he consistently kept the Raiders out of third an long situations with hard fought runs between the tackles. On the Raiders first drive he got the ball on three consecutive plays-- a 4 yard run, a 9 yard run on third down and then a 10 yard screen pass on fourth down. The drive ended with the Raiders' game tying field goal. On the Raiders first drive of the fourth quarter he had a 7 yard cut back run to set the Raiders up in third and short and on the next play he picked up the blitz nicely to allow Gradkowski to scramble for a first down. The drive ended with the Raiders first touchdown. He started the next drive with a 7 yard run on first down. This play set the Raiders up in third and short and with the Steelers forced to guard against the run, they bit hard on the play fake and left Murphy wide open for the 75 yard touchdown catch. Fargas finished with 63 yards on 15 carries.
His first play was in the first few seconds of the game. Santonio Holmes returned the opening kickoff 83 yards to the Raiders 19 yard line. But if Eugene hadn't chased him down from behind, Holmes would have taken it all the way back for a touchdown. After the big return, the Steelers would only manage 4 more yards and settled for a field goal. Hiram's second and final play is the reason he is a Baller. Because while his first play turned a Steeler touchdown into a field goal, his second play kept the Steelers from scoring altogether. Just before halftime, with the Steelers on the 16 and looking to score, Ben Roethlisberger thought he had Hines Ward open in the end zone but Eugene came sprinting from across the field to leap in the air and pluck the ball down for an interception and a touchback. It would serve as one of the biggest plays of the game. Combined with his first play, he took 11 points off the board from the Steelers. And folks, that is how games are won.
The Raiders called upon him to make two field goals and he made both of them. The first one was from 48 yards out-- nailed it. The second one was from 43 yards out and was even more impressive. Mainly because a wind had picked up that he compensated for. When the ball left his foot it looked like a sure miss wide right but it suddenly made a left turn and split the uprights perfectly. It looked like a bird (or angel?) had swooped in and corrected it's trajectory. If you needed any further proof of that wind, Jeff Reed lined up for a 53 yarder that began straight only to sail left and miss. How is it that Janikowski kicks better in Pittsburgh than the Steelers' own kicker?
It looks like the decision to move Thomas Howard to strong side linebacker was a good one (although he also plays well on the weak side too). He played very smart and aggressive and for nearly the entire game-- only stepping out for the occasional breather. That may not seem like a big deal but on the strong side, for the Raiders it is. Howard teamed up on a tackle for a short gain on the Steelers second possession that ended in a three and out. Then in the Steelers final drive of the third quarter, he shot into the backfield on one play to tackle the running back for a loss. A few plays later, he stayed in his gap when the running back changed direction and tackled him for a short gain. The drive ended one play later with the Steelers' missed field goal attempt.
As has happened many times before, the top Buster was the Raiders' leading tackler. Usually when that happens, Kirk Morrison is the recipient. And Branch has led the Raiders in tackles many times this season while never being a Buster. There is a first time for everything though. Just like Hiram Eugene made it as a Baller because of two key plays, Branch is a Buster for a few major mistakes. For instance, the Steelers first touchdown went through him alone. He gave up the first pass of 27 yards and then was burnt on the Santonio Holmes slant for a 34 yard touchdown. The Steelers had another two play drive in the fourth quarter and Branch was partly at fault on that play too. The first play of the drive, Stanford Routt gave up a catch to Holmes and Branch could have stopped it at 25 yards but he whiffed on the tackle and Holmes ran for a 57 yard gain to the Raiders' 3 yard line. The Steelers scored a touchdown on the next play to re-take the lead. That is 14 points for which Branch was either solely or partially responsible for.
We go from the Raiders' leading tackler to their second leading tackler. Although, I'm sure it's purely coincidental. The first time Huff was noticed was on the second play of the Steelers' third possession. A play in which Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall took the ball through the right guard/tackle gap. When Mendenhall came through the hole, the first man there was Huff and he looked like he would be able to make the tackle or at least slow him down. But he completely whiffed on the tackle and Mendenhall hardly had to break stride until he was 61 yards down the field. Then for two quarters Huff played quite well. But in the fourth quarter after the Raiders had taken a 20-17 lead, he gave up a 27 yard catch on the first play of the Steelers next drive. Three plays later he gave up a 20 yard catch. Those were the two biggest plays from scrimmage on the drive and it ended with a Steelers touchdown to put them ahead with just two minutes remaining.
Funny thing how as soon as Chris Morris gets back in the lineup, he immediately re-stakes his claim as a Buster. He came in the game early to replace Samson Satele who went out with an injury. On at least two separate occasions, his man pushed him out of the way to tackle the Raiders' running back for no gain. One other time he missed his assignment and caused a hurried throw on a possession that ended in a three and out.