LAS VEGAS — In another primetime matchup, the Steelers pulled it out. Pittsburgh won against the Las Vegas Raiders in a game that took many twists and turns. So, I took a few hours to parse some things together to make sense of this up-and-down game. What are some takeaways from the game?
The Anchor Still Exists
There is still a problem with this offense that has not improved. Kenny Pickett looked better tonight. Matt Canada dialed up some nice shots. But the run game, against a unit that seemed ripe for the taking up front, did not get going. Now, you can blame that on several factors, and the Steelers rushing offense did eclipse 100 yards for the first time this season, but Pittsburgh still averaged just 3.4 yards per carry. Neither Najee Harris nor Jaylen Warren on a per-carry basis were too efficient.
Moreover, Pickett got rocked too many times. The offensive line is the anchor of this offense I keep talking about. I have no idea what the team has to do to get the moving. But a quarterback who is not fully there yet and a playcaller who is questionable at best can be masked by an offensive line playing well. That showcased itself at the end of last year when Pittsburgh went on a run to end the season.
But right now, that unit is helping no one. Maxx Crosby destroyed the game, and others chipped in to help. It’s not just one player, it’s everyone. Broderick Jones may help, but he won’t be the entire solution. He’s a rookie. Until this unit improves, the Steelers will not take some massive leap offensively. The Raiders are not good on defense, so naturally, some positive regression was due.
But…Signs of Optimism
Okay, let’s not all be pessimistic. I’ll say this — Pickett played much better. The start was shaky, just like the other outings, but to his credit, Pickett made more than enough plays to win this game. For one, he hit the layups. That’s something he did not do at all the past two weeks. It’s the bare minimum of NFL quarterback play, but he did a great job placing balls over the middle of the field so his receivers could get easy yards after the catch. In addition, he looked more comfortable throwing the ball through his other progressions. The one area that irked me still was the pocket management, where he slid into pressure and bailed on clean pockets. But it’s a step in the right direction. It is not a perfect game, but this is starting to look more like the Pickett you know.
Pat Freiermuth came alive. The effort to get him involved was there. It made no sense that the Steelers just left him in the dust for the first two weeks, but they ran concepts on Sunday that prioritized tight ends all over the field. Outside of that, the receivers played well. George Pickens continues to prove he can do much more than make some nice catches on go balls. Allen Robinson II is a nice chain mover who brings veteran smarts. And Calvin Austin III‘s speed changes how defenses play the Steelers. All in all, it came together quite nicely with the skill weapons.
A Comment on Running Backs
I have too many thoughts on the ongoing Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren debate. For one, I imagine it’s going to roll on all year. This is the new Austin Ekeler vs. Melvin Gordon, Tony Pollard vs. Ezekiel Elliott, etc. Everyone seems steadfast that Warren is better. I won’t say they’re wrong; on the eye test, it’s correct. But if he is better, which depends on your perspective, how much better is Warren?
During the year, Harris is more efficient at creating something out of nothing. No, seriously. According to Next Gen Stats, he has 25 rushing yards over expectation compared to Warren’s -6 rushing yards over expectation. Harris is more efficient on the ground. Warren is great as a pass protector and pass catcher with burst and speed, but let’s not discount Harris here. He creates a lot of tough yardage that is hidden.
Pressley Harvin On Another Level
If one thing about the past two weeks is true, this special teams group has something brewing. Between Chris Boswell, Calvin Austin III, and suddenly, Pressley Harvin III, the group has embraced itself well. Harvin has played unbelievably in the last two games. On Sunday, when the Steelers needed something to latch onto with a struggling offense and win the field position battle, Harvin flipped fields consistently.
If Harvin can continue this trend, it will be huge for the Steelers’ sputtering offense as they try to find traction. It allows the defense to pin their ears back and make plays with teams pinned deep into their end. It opens up the cache for several things. So, what Harvin has brought to the table over the last two games is invaluable for the Steelers, especially after the porous Week 1 performance against San Francisco. The Steelers have done almost everything right on special teams, and it shows.
The Defensive Line Balls Out
Without Cam Heyward, it would be easy for the Steelers’ defensive line to trod it in and collapse. Most people thought they would do that. Instead, they have risen to the occasion, and the group continues to play well. Sure, they have ten sacks in the last two games and seven takeaways, which the pressure of that front has contributed to significantly. But the interior defensive line is the story here. It’s not just T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith making those plays.
No, instead, Larry Ogunjobi and others continue to ball out. Montravius Adams and Keeanu Benton shined against the Raiders. Adams played his best game in a Steelers uniform, for my money, flashing his impressive burst off the line of scrimmage and flying around the field. Benton continues his ascent up the mountain top. Nothing is perfect for the team up front, and they did have some tough reps, but that group has stepped up in a way more than anyone could have hoped without the group’s unquestioned leader.