By Paul Wexler
RaiderBeat.com Staff Writer
PITTSBURGH — On a cold December day, the Raiders upset the defending Super Bowl champions on their home field, 27-24, and warmed the hearts of the Raider Nation.
The Raiders rode the arm of quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who passed for 308 yards and three touchdowns. Gradkowski, who was born in Pittsburgh and attended high school here, had the best day of his four-year NFL career.
“This is the top game,” Gradkowski said. “My past four years, some ups and some downs, and this is the most exciting game I have been a part of. I mean, that was exciting. I can’t even put into words what I feel. You always visualize the game going into it and you always picture yourself winning and doing good. That was good. That was exciting, and you couldn’t want it to end any better.”
On paper, this was a terrible match up that favored the Steelers. Their defense is one of the top overall units in the league. They are No. 1 against the run at an averaged of 74.9 yards a game.
The Raiders statistically are the worst-passing team in the league. Yet, someone forgot to tell Gradkowski, who led the Raiders back from a deficit in the fourth quarter three times.
The 21 points the Raiders scored in the final 8 minutes, 21 seconds were more than they had scored in any game this season.
“That’s pretty cool now,” Raiders coach Tom Cable said of Gradkowski’s stellar effort. “You kidding me? You come home, his folks are in the stands, guys hung in there till the end and made big plays, big throws. Just a great job by him.”
The Raiders defense deserves a lot of credit for keeping the game close enough for the offense to come back and win. Two key plays kept the Steelers from scoring points and putting the Raiders in a hole they could not climb out of.
In the first quarter, after the teams traded field goals, Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall broke a 60-yard run on a second-and-4 play that put Pittsburgh on the Raiders 14-yard line. Three plays later, the Steelers were faced with fourth-and-one at the 5. The Raiders held and got the ball back on downs.
Just before halftime, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberber was slicing up the Raiders secondary on his way to what looked like an easy touchdown. Raiders backup safety Hiram Eugene ended the threat with a spectacular grab of a Roethlisberger pass for receiver Hines Ward in the back of the end zone.
“Sitting back in the middle, Ben looks to his left, which is my right,” Eugene said. “He is looking for number 10 (Santonio Holmes) over there and guess he sees that he is covered, so he came backside and tried to go to Hines Ward. I read the release and I just broke on it.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin promised his team would “unleash hell” in December. Instead, he was disappointed in his team’s effort in its first such game.
“You know, not a lot needs to be said in regard to how that game ended,” Tomlin said. ”I’m not going to make any excuses for it. We didn’t make a play. We didn’t make a play to win that football game defensively.”
Raiders rookie receiver Louis Murphy had the best game of his young career. He finished with four receptions for 128 yards and two touchdowns. One catch, in particular, stood out above the rest. Gradkowski, perhaps because he was hit as he was throwing, threw the ball up for grabs. Murphy outjumped two defenders, came down with the ball and kept alive the final drive.
“Yeah, it seemed like an eternity,” Murphy said. “It was up there forever. A lot of the leaders on the team just turned to me and said, ‘Murph, we need a big play, we need a big play.’ So, that’s all I can give credit to is my teammates. The team came out and played hard. I just wanted to go out and make some plays for the team.”
Gradkowski said he was thrilled that Murphy was on the field making plays for him.
“Louis Murphy went up and got the ball a couple times, and I was like, ‘Thank God, he caught that.’ ”
The Raiders were forced to use a makeshift line in the fourth quarter. Starting center Samson Satele left the game with a calf injury and was replaced with Chris Morris. Then, starting left guard Robert Gallery went out with a lower back injury and had to be replaced by offensive tackle Langston Walker, who had not played guard since the Monday Night game against the Green Bay Packers on Dec. 22, 2003.
“The guys in there knew that I hadn’t been in that position,” Walker said. “I had no idea what I was doing, but coach Cable came over and asked me what I feel comfortable with and what I don’t feel comfortable with. I think he tried to protect me and ease me into it with the play-calling at first, and then, of course, the rest of the offensive linemen helped me smooth into things.”
The offensive line was good enough to protect Gradkowski and open enough holes for the Raiders running backs to gain the bulk of the team’s 109 yards. Led by Justin Fargas’ 63 yards on 15 carries, the Raiders ran enough to keep the Steelers defense honest.
The most significant part of this win maybe the shift in the locker room, as Gradkowski clearly has taken over as the offensive leader. A few players still are cautious when answering questions about who they like better running the offense, Gradkowski or JaMarcus Russell, but more and more players are warming up to Gradkowski’s high energy, take charge leadership style.
“Dude, he was great, man,” offensive tackle Mario Henderson said about Gradkowski. ”He was so in command. I remember one time, they were showing a play on the score monitor and I was just looking up to see, did I do the right thing or not, and Bruce was like, ‘Stop (expletive) looking at the thing and get your mind right.’
“I was like, I looked at him at first like, ‘You talkin’ to me?’ Then I was like, ‘You know what, I like that (crap.) I like that, man.’ He demands attention. That’s what you need as a quarterback in the league because I was like, ‘O.K., all right, Bruce, I like that. O.K., you’re fighting and I like that.’ Bruce was like, ‘Oh (crap). Fired up. Fired up for this job.’ And the pressure’s definitely on him. He has most of the pressure.”
Other players echoed the sentiment.
“Bruce is fiery,” Walker said. “He’s yelling at us, screaming at us, running around like a banshee, but it’s all controlled. That’s how he gets it done. You saw the result.”
The Raiders (4-8) return home to face the Washington Redskins on Sunday, as they try to avoid double digit losses for the seventh year in the row.