The Steelers 24-18 win over the Las Vegas Raiders improved Pittsburgh’s record to 2-1 and gave the franchise its first road win against the Raiders since 1995.
While nothing is set in stone this early in an NFL season, week 3 is the moment where tendencies emerge, when players establish consistency (or not) and when a team’s collective positives start outweighing its collective negatives or vice a versa.
- Going into the game the “bad” had far outweighed the “good” for the Steelers offense.
Matt Canada’s offense improved against the Raiders, but it didn’t improve enough to even the scales to the point where anyone would fear them. However, if the Steelers offense can sustain the progress it revealed in the second half, they’ll be on the road to earning respect from their peers.
Steelers First Half Journey All Too Familiar
Mel Blount once shared in an NFL Films clip that Chuck Noll motivated the Super Steelers by reminding them, “Life is a journey in which you never arrive.” The Emperor’s wisdom is as sound today as it was then.
But the 2023 Steelers offense can be forgiven for wanting to focus on the arrival part, because their journey has not been a pleasant one. Sure, San Francisco might have the NFL’s best defense and Cleveland’s defense is also tough. But Pittsburgh’s offense proved it didn’t belong on the same field.
- And for much of the first half the offense looked like it might stick to the same script.
Yes, Kenny Pickett and Calvin Austin hooked up deep pass followed by a long catch and run that ended in the end zone. In fact, Pickett and George Pickens had done something similar just 6 days before. And that’s the problem. Because just like the week before the offense could only manage field goals 44 and 54 yard field goals.
The other, non-scoring drives of the first half lasted all of 9 plays and ended with Pressley Harvin punts. The Steelers were splitting carries between Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, but neither man was effective.
The stat sheet shows that Pickett didn’t throw an interception. Which is good. What the stat sheet hides is that Pickett hit Marcus Peters right in the numbers for an easy Pick Six that Peters dropped. Which is bad.
- The Steelers defense was also following a similar script to the one they’d written vs Cleveland.
No, the outside linebackers weren’t scoring touchdowns, but T.J. Watt was wrecking drives, almost single handedly. Going into the half it looked like the Steelers might need their defense to win this one again.
That wasn’t what anyone wanted, but maybe it would be needed.
Canada Channels His… Inner Shanahan in 2nd Half…?
The opening of the second half also had a familiar feel to it, but finally, familiarity felt friendly.
The Steelers defense forced a quick three and out thanks to a heads up play made by deep downfield by Cole Holcomb. The Steelers offense got the ball and kicked another field goal. And although this one was another 52-yarder, it was different. The 54 yarder that preceded it had followed an 11 play drive. This one came on the heels of a-9 play drive.
And this was part of the formula that carried the Steelers to 7 wins in their last 9 games of 2022: Ball control offenses that settle for three but survive thanks to superior defense. This wasn’t what we expected or hoped to see in this new season, but in hindsight everyone would have welcomed something similar against San Francisco.
If you’ve watched the Steelers offense all season, what came next almost seemed like something out of a one of those comedies where the clumsy, bumbling character gets hypnotized or touched by an angle and is suddenly deft, dexterous and intelligent. It seemed like that’s what happened to the Steelers offense.
For six plays, the Steelers executed with the type of precision you’d expect to see from a Kyle Shanahan led unit. Here’s how the action unfolded:
- 17-yards Pickett to Pickens on a play action pass
- 4 yard run by Jaylen Warren
- 16-yard screen pass to Jaylen Warren
- 14-yard pass up the middle to Pat Freiermuth
- 17-yard run by Najee Harris, taking Pittsburgh into the Red Zone for the first time in 2023
- Play action resulting in a 13 yard touchdown to Pat Freiermuth
The Steelers defense stopped the Oakland Los Angeles Oakland Las Vegas on 4th down, giving the Steelers a 23-7 lead with 13:13 left in the 4th quarter.
The game seemed to be over. But then, just as it would in a sitcom, the hypnosis or the angel’s touch disappeared in a blink, as the Steelers offense bumbled their way to two straight three and outs that netted a total of 10 yards, failing to milk even two minutes from the clock.
That Shanahanesque drive may not have been a mirage, but it looked an awful lot like it the law of averages working its will.
That’s certainly the conclusion Raiders Coach Josh McDaniels reached.
Canada Makes Raiders Regret Their Lack of Respect
During an on-line chat, the Post Gazette’s Gerry Dulac once assured me that, for all the animosity felt on the field, Steelers legends like Jack Lambert held a deep respect for the Raiders of the ‘70s.
- The same cannot be said for head coach Josh McDaniels.
After the Steelers first three and out of the 4th quarter, the Raiders answered with a touchdown. On their next drive they reached the Red Zone, where Josh McDaniels opted to kick a field goal at 4th and 4 on the Steelers 8. That reduced the Raiders deficit to 5, but meant they had just 2 minutes and 22 seconds to get the ball back and score a touchdown.
Pundits are struggling to understand Daniels’ decision, but it really is easy to explain: He feared the Steelers defense and disrespected their offense.
Daniels’ bet that the Steelers offense couldn’t earn a first down. He represents Las Vegas, and the smart money was on his side.
- But dice don’t have memories. Matt Canada apparently does.
He ran twice to Jaylen Warren, forcing the Raiders to burn two time outs. Then on third and 2, he lined up in a formation the Steelers had run from previously, and motioned Pickett to his left, who found Allen Robinson for 6 yards and the first down.
The Steelers offense couldn’t get another first down, but they burned the Raiders’ last time out and enough time off the clock to give the ball back to Jimmy Garoppolo with 24 seconds left.
Garoppolo only needed 7 of those to throw an interception right to Levi Wallace, allowing Kenny Pickett to line up in the victory formation.
Dice don’t decide football games football games, players do.