ALAMEDA, Calif. — Bruce Gradkowski is heading home and the Oakland Raiders quarterback wouldn't mind if he and his teammates were greeted with a blanket of snow.
“Being from Pittsburgh and playing at Toledo you face all the weather you can face,” Gradkowski said Thursday. “It'll be a nice fall, winter day. I'm looking forward to it. Early December, we might get some snow flurries. It'll be good.”
Gradkowski grew up in the Steel City, played in college at the University of Toledo in Ohio and his mother still lives 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. Several other relatives also live in the area, making for a homecoming of sorts for the Raiders' journeyman quarterback who as a youth frequently attended Steelers games at Three Rivers Stadium and at the team's new home at Heinz Field.
Now he comes in as Oakland's starting quarterback trying to salvage what's left of a dismal season.
The Raiders are 3-8 and coming off a 24-7 loss to Dallas on Thanksgiving Day. Gradkowski passed for 200 yards and a touchdown against the Cowboys, and in two-plus games already has thrown for more than half as much yardage (546) as JaMarcus Russell (1,064) did in nine starts.
Gradkowski has started twice before in Pittsburgh, once as a rookie with Tampa Bay in 2007 and in Week 17 last season shortly after he signed with the Cleveland Browns. He passed for just 18 yards and compiled a quarterback rating of 1.0.
“It's always nice going back to Pittsburgh,” Gradkowski said. “You have to have fun with it. My family, my cousins, they're die-hard Steeler fans. Last year when I was with the Browns it was hard for then. They wore neutral colors but I think being with the Raiders this past year and getting to know these guys and being with this team, I know I'll have the family behind me on this one.”
There's been some speculation Oakland will put Russell, the top overall draft pick in 2007, back into the starting lineup at some point this season. The Raiders, who invested more than $60 million in Russell, need to have a better idea where — or if — he still figures into their future plans.
Oakland coach Tom Cable is sticking with Gradkowski for now and hopes to find some balance to the offense against Pittsburgh.
“You've got to have enough run,” Cable said, “But you've got to be able to do it throwing the football.”
The weather in Pittsburgh is expected to be in the mid- to upper 30s this weekend but snow is not in the forecast.
“Over the next month, we're going to play three times and will probably be in some severe weather somewhere, whether it's in Pittsburgh, Denver or in Cleveland,” Cable said. “We've kind of talked it over and mentally we're prepared for that. Whether it's wind blowing and snowing, icy, whatever it is, it still comes down to both teams have to go out and perform in it.”
The Steelers have lost their last three games and need a win to stay in the AFC playoff hunt, while the Raiders have dropped seven of nine and are just trying to make it to the finish.
Gradkowski, who took over when Russell was benched in the second half of Oakland's 16-10 loss to Kansas City on Nov. 15, provided a little spark for the Raiders offense but hasn't been able to sustain it. He has three touchdowns and three interceptions with a 66.3 quarterback rating.
“When I watch him on tape I see a guy that's got very good accuracy and pretty good mobility, can release the ball from a variety of body positions and locations,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “It seems like he's been a sparkplug for that offensive unit.”
Even with the improved play from the quarterback spot, the Raiders are still last in the league in passing, scoring and first downs and are 31st in total yardage.
“We just need to execute,” Gradkowski said. “When plays are there we need to make them. (The Steelers) don't really lack in any position on defense, and they're experienced. We have to be ready for anything.”
Notes: DE Greg Ellis (knee) was held out of practice and is questionable. ... Trevor Scott will make his second career start at weakside linebacker while the Raiders' former starter at the position, Thomas Howard, will start at the strongside spot.