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Despite how it may appear, the Steelers’ defense performed well against the Raiders

Derek Carr thrived amidst tight coverage and good reads, not because of errant plays.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Fresh off of their 23-16 victory against the Bills in Buffalo, it felt as if the Steelers were already on top of the mountain. Consequently, a trip back home to Pittsburgh would culminate in a win against the Las Vegas Raiders, right?

Not so fast.

On Sunday, Jon Gruden got the better of his former assistant thanks to a 26-17 upstaging of the Steelers, improving to 2-0. For Mike Tomlin, what seemed like coasting had hit a major detour.

There’s simply no way to properly characterize Pittsburgh’s loss in Week 2 other than to attribute credit to Gruden, Carr and the Raiders. On both sides of the ball, the Steelers were fundamentally outplayed; in terms of injuries, each team was without several major starters and cogs.

Las Vegas’ defense is certainly worthy of acclaim. Maxx Crosby continued what could conclude as a Pro Bowl-caliber year by wreaking havoc upon the Steelers’ offensive line—and possibly even injuring Ben Roethlisberger—and Casey Hayward broke up numerous chunk plays, especially those targeted to Chase Claypool.

Enough about Gus Bradley’s unit, though. Let’s pivot to the real story: Las Vegas’ offense.

Against the Steelers, Derek Carr was flat out exceptional. In fact, his 382 passing yards are a number unlike any compiled against the Steel Curtain in over a decade.

Simply put, Carr looked like not just a top 10 quarterback, but possibly even one of the five best in the game. His performance has generated buzz to the extent that some have already labeled him the MVP frontrunner.

Given Carr’s exceptional outing, one would assume that Keith Butler’s defense didn’t play up to snuff—however, that’s not the case.

Unequivocally, the Raiders’ go-to guy on offense is Darren Waller. One of the foremost tight ends in the NFL, Waller is tied with Kansas City’s Travis Kelce for the fifth-most targets in the league last two seasons. Effectively, opposing defenses are keenly aware that the ball will be thrown to Waller yet largely cannot curtail his success whatsoever.

Yet Butler’s grouping was able to change the tide. In fact, in the first half, Waller was held without a target. The 2020 Pro Bowl selection ultimately finished Sunday afternoon’s contest with six catches for 65 yards, numbers that are pedestrian compared to his 10 receptions and 105 yards against Baltimore in Week 1.

The reason the Steelers (somewhat) mitigated Waller? Minkah Fitzpatrick was largely watching Waller all game, and the defensive back was thrown at just twice. In and of itself, neutralizing Waller can be viewed as a micro-victory for Tomlin’s defense.

Furthermore, the Steelers completely stonewalled the Raiders’ rushing attack. Without Josh Jacobs, this is an accomplishment worth far less allure, but it’s still noteworthy when a team averages less than 2.1 yards per carry. Kenyan Drake was wondering what’s next and if he had any friends in the industry (I hope you get the puns) after posting just nine yards on seven carries.

Even when something fell in Pittsburgh’s favor, the Steelers didn’t obtain much of an edge—largely because of the efficacy showcased by Carr & Co.

Just as Pittsburgh was starting to climb back in and build momentum, the air was sapped out of Heinz Field via a 61-yard touchdown pass from Carr to 2020 first-rounder Henry Ruggs III. Ironically enough, the defender most directly responsible for the score was recently acquired cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who saw action on just four plays.

In the clip below, ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky and Ryan Clark very eloquently describe how the play unfolded. In particular, Clark—a former Steeler, no less—explains how Fitzpatrick is at no fault whatsoever for roaming over towards Waller.

Carr and the Raiders executed their game plan so terrifically that even when Fitzpatrick made a sound read, it still wasn’t good enough to get a stop.

A play with a similar tenor is this touchdown pass to Foster Moreau. In man coverage, Joe Schobert is step-for-step with Moreau, yet Carr places the ball perfectly towards the back left of the end zone so that Schobert can’t get a hand on it.

By no means am I positing that the Steelers’ defense was as flawless as it was in Week 1 in which it held Josh Allen to just 270 passing yards. At times, Pittsburgh struggled to get off the field on 3rd down, resulting in several elongated drives—including a Las Vegas series that ticked 6:23 off the clock. Also, the Steelers did not have a takeaway after forcing one in Buffalo.

All in all, though, I don’t think the Steelers’ defense can assume much blame for their disappointing Week 2 outcome, especially given that Carr had one of the best games of his career—his 126.2 passer rating was his second best since 2018. Frankly, this game doesn’t tell us much about Pittsburgh’s defense, especially without T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, Devin Bush and Joe Haden. I expect most, if not all, to play against the Bengals, so the Steel Curtain should have far fewer wrinkles this Sunday and is poised to dominate once again.

The offense, well, is a whole different story.