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The night Rich Gannon dinked and dunked the Steelers defense to death

The Steelers defense had a hard time getting off the field throughout the 2002 season. Maybe it would have been wise had the unit simply stayed on the sidelines during a Week 2 contest against the Raiders at Heinz Field. Former Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon torched the unit for 403 yards on a whopping 64 pass-attempts, and I was there to see it.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

I don't get to go to many Steelers games, so when I do, I usually remember everything about  them.

One such game occurred on September 15, 2002, at Heinz Field, as the Steelers took on the Raiders on Sunday Night Football.

I'd like to say I woke up that morning highly anticipating this contest. Unfortunately, I awoke around 6 a.m. to loud banging on the front door of my first apartment. Alarmed, I immediately ran to my kitchen window to see if it was an intruder ('cause, you know, that's what intruders do, they knock), but instead, I saw the lights of a firetruck reflecting on the trees out front and simultaneously smelled smoke. That's when I knew I was safe from intruders but in danger of burning, so I put on some clothes and shoes and bolted out of there faster than Kordell Stewart leaving the good-graces of the fan base back in 1998.

Thankfully, it was a minor fire on the front-porch of my landlord's portion of the complex (he and his family lived upstairs), but I had to sit outside with my fellow tenant for about three hours while firefighters from Carnegie, Crafton, Ingram and Green Tree dealt with the flames and made sure everything was safe and sound.

Fast-forward about 12 hours, and there I was heading to Heinz Field with my brother (who came into possession of two tickets somehow). Naturally, our seats were in the upper-deck (aren't they always?), but since it was a warm evening, and since this was my first trip to the Steelers' brand-new stadium, I didn't mind.

When we got to our seats, located near the end zone of the closed-end, I was immediately impressed with the view of the city over the open-end, as well as the stadium in-general.

Since my brother wasn't a season-ticket holder, everyone in our section looked at us like we were strangers parking our car in a neighbor's favorite spot. Therefore, we were thoroughly vetted to make sure we didn't steal the tickets or sneak past security and all the way up to peanut heaven.

Anyway, let's get on with the game, shall we?

Quarterback Rich Gannon and the Raiders continued what Tom Brady and the Patriots did in Week 1 and what then Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau started in Week 16 of the 2001 season, and that was spread Pittsburgh's fierce defense out as a means to neutralize its potent pass-rush that recorded 55 sacks the year before when the team advanced all the way to the AFC title game.

This resulted in a nearly eight-minute opening-drive by Oakland and a 3-0 lead, thanks to a 41-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski.

But fear not, because this was a Steelers team playing at home and one that was again a serious Super Bowl contender, despite its 0-1 start to the season after getting shellacked six days earlier. At least that's how it looked during Pittsburgh's first possession, when Stewart quickly led the offense downfield on a drive that ended with the often embattled quarterback finding Hines Ward on a pretty 34-yard touchdown pass in the end zone right below us (I can still see that play in my mind's eye as I type about it).

The Steelers led, 7-3, and were in firm control of things...well, until the defense came back onto the field.

Again, Gannon spread Pittsburgh's defense out, and 2:47 of game-time later, it was 10-7 Raiders, after Charlie Garner scored on a 36-yard run.

Time and time again, Gannon hit receivers on short little passes that the Steelers seemed to have no answer for. Each time Gannon found a receiver wide-open for five or 10 yards, a guy sitting next to my brother and me would say, "See, that's gonna be open all night." You know how I'm a wimp who is afraid to fight? That was the only thing preventing me from really letting that guy have it.

Unfortunately, he was right, and he would continue to be right the entire night and most of the season, as this would become the year Pittsburgh's defense famously "couldn't get off the field on third down." (Oakland was 12-20 on third downs in this game.)

Despite these difficulties, Pittsburgh remained in the game, thanks to Joey Porter's second quarter interception that thwarted yet another promising Raiders drive (Peezy was tackled by Jerry Rice, which, in retrospect, was the equivalent of fans at Three Rivers Stadium watching Johnny Unitas as a Charger in Week 4 of the 1973 season).

Midway through the second quarter, Stewart had the offense on the doorstep of another touchdown. It was  first and goal from the Oakland three-yard line, and everyone in the stadium--including my brother and me--were anticipating pay-dirt being hit. Sadly, instead of a score, what we got was a fumble by Stewart that was recovered by......wait for it.......Rod Woodson.

Naturally, the Raiders converted this good fortune into a touchdown, when Gannon led the offense 90 yards and found Jerry Porter for a 21-yard touchdown to make it 17-7, Silver and Black.

After the two teams traded field goals, there were those Raiders again, sitting at the Pittsburgh four-yard line late in the third quarter after (I'm only guessing here, since it was 14 years ago) dinking and dunking their way down the field. But just when it looked like Oakland would seize total control of the game, Porter came through again by intercepting Gannon for a second time and racing 80 yards to the Oakland 20. (In a game that would have been the precursor to James Harrison's epic night against the Ravens had Pittsburgh actually won, Porter also had three sacks to go along with his two touchdown-preventing picks).

As you might imagine, everyone was pretty excited, and this feeling grew five plays later, when Stewart and Ward connected on their second touchdown of the night to make it 20-17 after three quarters.

The momentum was on the Steelers side, and there was no way they would be denied......well, until the special teams came out onto the field.

Continuing a theme from the previous year, when several kickoffs and punts were returned for scores, Terry Kirby returned Todd Peterson's ensuing kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown, and, just like that, it was a 10-point deficit once more.

Could Pittsburgh mount a comeback?


On the first play of Pittsburgh's next drive, Ward fumbled, and it was recovered by.....brace yourself......Rod Woodson.

Later in the final period, Amos Zereoue fumbled, as did Plaxico Burress (if you have an authentic Rod Woodson Steelers jersey, hopefully it's out of harm's way as you read this, because he recovered that one too), and Stewart ended the evening by throwing an interception.

By this point, my brother and I had already exited the stadium and were walking back to my car, so we only heard the groans of the crowd and didn't see the rest of the ugliness unfold.

Back to Gannon. For the night, he completed 43 of a whopping 64 passes for 403 yards and averaged just below 6.3 yards per attempt, with his longest completion being 34 yards.

Pittsburgh fell, 30-17, and dropped to 0-2 to start the season.

The Steelers rebounded to finish at 10-5-1 and win their first AFC North crown, but I wasn't in attendance for any of those wins.

Instead, after spending the morning of September 15, 2002, watching several firemen successfully put out flames in my apartment building, I spent that evening watching the Steelers' defense fail to put out  Rich Gannon and the Raiders offense.