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Steelers youth movement delivers a Christmas miracle to beat the Raiders

The Pittsburgh Steelers leaned on their youth to beat the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 16, and nothing exemplified that more than the game-winning drive.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

For the first 57 minutes of their game with the Las Vegas Raiders on Christmas Eve, the Steelers’ offense was as cold as the weather. Inaccurate throws, dropped passes, missed field goals and questionable decision-making squandered the stellar play of their defense, who held the Raiders to 201 yards and 10 points. When the offense trotted on to the field with 2:55 to play, trailing 10-6 and needing to drive 76 yards for a go-ahead touchdown, it seemed only a Christmas miracle would get them to the end zone.

That’s exactly what they delivered.

Kenny Pickett completed 7-9 passes on the drive, culminating with a perfect throw to George Pickens with 0:46 remaining for the decisive score. Pickett and his fellow marquee picks from Pittsburgh’s last two drafts — Pickens, Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris — accounted for all 76 yards, granting Steelers’ fans an early Christmas present on a night they commemorated both the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception and mourned the sudden passing of its author, Franco Harris.

Here’s a breakdown of the winning drive, and how Pittsburgh’s young studs pulled it off.

1st-and-10, Pitt 24-yard line, 2:55 remaining

The opening play was not sexy, but it was important. With the Steelers in a 2x2 set from 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs), they ran deep hitches with their four receivers while running back Najee Harris executed a check down over the ball. Pickett quickly diagnosed the deep drop of the Mike (middle) linebacker into a Tampa-2 look, and the wide drops of the Sam and Will backers, who undercut the hitch routes. Pickett didn’t get greedy and force a ball down the field. Instead, he dumped it to Harris in the void created by the Mike:

The play gained just six yards, but it was a positive opener that set up a manageable 2nd down. It also showed that Pickett was content to take what the defense was giving him rather than forcing the ball down the field. This would serve him well as the drive proceeded.

2nd-and-4, Pitt 30-yard line, 2:18 remaining

With the ball on the right hash, the Steelers put three receivers in a bunch set to the field, with Diontae Johnson isolated to the short side. Vegas ran a twist stunt up front, bringing left tackle Bilal Nichols (91) on a loop into the opposite A-gap. Center Mason Cole and left guard Kevin Dotson did not communicate the stunt well and both ended up blocking the same defender. This sprung Nichols, who flushed Pickett from the pocket. Pickett rolled right and threw off his back foot towards the middle of the field just before being hit by end Maxx Crosby (98).

My immediate reaction was to say, “Oh no,” as throwing across the body rarely ends well for a quarterback. But Pickett found Freiermuth standing alone near the 40, and the big tight end turned up field and made extra yards after the catch:

From this angle, you can see how Pickett’s throw just cleared end Clelin Farrell (99), who had fallen off his pass rush. You can also see how Freiermuth, who was crossing the field on his initial route, did a nice job separating from coverage and finding an open space where Pickett could locate him. The throw was risky, but it paid off, as Freiermuth took the ball out near midfield as the game headed to the 2:00 warning:

1st-and-10, Pitt 47-yard line, 2:00 remaining

Coming out of the break, Pittsburgh went back to a 2x2 look. Vegas, which had been in a soft zone on the first two downs of the drive, switched to man coverage and brought five rushers. Pickett anticipated pressure up the gut and quickly left the pocket (too quickly, in fact, which has been a problem all season. His pocket presence remains a work in progress). Freiermuth, who had run a four-step hitch from his alignment in the right slot, helped him by working towards the sideline. Pickett threw off-balance as two defenders lunged at him but managed to put the ball low and away, where only Freiermuth could catch it. Freiermuth juggled the throw as he was going to the ground, but hung on, getting his elbow down just before falling out of bounds. The call was reviewed and the ruling stood, moving the chains again.

1st-and-10, LV 43-yard line, 1:43 remaining

With the Steelers now in Vegas territory, Pickett almost turned promise into disaster. Pittsburgh went with a 3x1 set to the field, and Vegas countered with Tampa-2. Pickett initially looked right, to Johnson, who was the single receiver. But Johnson was bracketed by the corner and safety, so Pickett came off of him and looked left, where Harris was releasing into the flat.

Earlier in the game, Pickett threw his first interception in over a month in a similar scenario. Pickett looked right, found nothing, then came back left and tried to squeeze in a ball to Connor Heyward. Pressure in Pickett’s face prohibited him from driving the throw. Still, it was a bad decision. Linebacker Denzel Perryman picked it, killing a potential scoring drive:

Now, with the game on the line, Pickett almost repeated that mistake. His error was that, in re-setting his feet while moving through his progression, he failed to rotate his hips properly, resulting in a throw that was off target. Pickett stepped at Harris, but his throw was all upper body, with his hips and legs minimally involved. Had Harris not deflected it, it probably would have been intercepted:

Pickett does not possess the arm strength of a Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes. Therefore, he requires sound fundamentals to drive and locate the football. When his feet are off, he struggles. This is something that he and his trainer, quarterback guru Tony Racioppi, will have to spend time on this off-season. Marrying his fundamentals to the speed of the game will be integral to Pickett’s development.

2nd-and-10, LV 43-yard line, 1:37 remaining

Fortunately, Pickett doesn’t fluster easily, so his near-mistake didn’t faze him. He resumed his patient approach on the following play, again checking the ball down to Harris as Vegas bailed into a soft zone. Harris caught the throw, squared up and did this:

There are times when Harris is such a patient runner that he fails to hit holes before they close, or to use his 242-pound frame to his advantage. This was not one of them. Harris put his shoulders down, ran through two would-be tacklers, then plowed through another while dragging corner Sam Webb (27) for extra yardage.

Harris never seemed to get into a rhythm in the run game against Vegas, and coordinator Matt Canada largely gave up on it in the 2nd half. But like the rest of the offense, he played best when it mattered most.

3rd-and-5, LV 19-yard line, 1:05 remaining

Pickett targeted Harris on the next two plays, producing a short completion and a play that was (thankfully) ruled incomplete on review. The review wiped out a completed pass that lost two yards and would have forced the Steelers to use one of their remaining time-outs.

That brought up 3rd-and-5. Pittsburgh bunched the formation to Pickett’s right, and Freiermuth ran an arrow route towards the boundary underneath a hitch from Pickens. Pickett targeted Freiermuth with a throw that missed low and inside. Freiermuth went down and got it, stumbling forward after the catch to come up just short of the sticks:

From this angle, you can see what a remarkable catch this was. Freiermuth was moving to his left, and the ball was thrown low to his right. He had to pivot and flip his hips on a frozen field, then go down to catch an undoubtedly slick football that was away from his body and beneath his knees. This was no easy task under normal conditions. In sub-zero weather, it was brilliant:

Freiermuth’s catch, and the subsequent lunge forward, set the Steelers up with 4th-and-short, leading to the biggest play of the game.

4th-and-1, LV 15-yard line, 0:55 remaining

4th-and-1. Minus-9 wind chill. Less than a minute to go. All 22 players packed into a box with the game on the line.

Franco would have approved.

There was never any mystery about what the Steelers would run. They’d executed a successful quarterback sneak earlier in the game. It stood to reason they’d run another. They did add a wrinkle, releasing Harris wide to provide the illusion of an outside run while motioning receiver Miles Boykin (13) towards Pickett to shove him from behind. The strategy worked, as Harris’s path pulled linebacker Luke Masterson (59) away from the sneak and Boykin did just enough to help push Pickett past the sticks:

Assists on the play went to Cole, Dotson and left tackle Dan Moore Jr, all of whom got good movement up front. Pickett did a nice job, too, keeping his legs churning to produce the necessary yardage:

1st-and-10, LV 14-yard line, 0:46 remaining

With a new set of downs and just 14 yards to go, Pickett made his most decisive throw of the night. All things considered, it was probably the biggest throw of his young career.

The Steelers went 3x1 to Pickett’s right while Vegas countered with a man-under/two-deep look. This meant the Raiders were locked in man-coverage with two safeties providing help over the top. The safeties aligned wide, protecting against corner routes. This made sense given Pickett’s reluctance to throw towards the middle of the field.

It came as a pleasant surprise, then, when he planted off of a three-step drop and drilled a skinny post that hit Pickens, who had split the safeties, squarely between the numbers:

In the clip below, Pickens is aligned on the inside of the trips. He is covered by corner Nate Hobbs (39). Hobbs shaded Pickens outside, suggesting he expected help from the opposite safety. The safety was late, though, perhaps anticipating Pickett would target Freiermuth on the back side. Pickens did a great job of widening Hobbs with his stem, then staying away from the safety as he broke towards the post. Pickett’s throw was precise, giving the safety little chance to recover:

It was a huge drive for the offense, and for Pickett in particular. Reading the comments on the BTSC post-game thread, I was surprised at how many people were critical of him. He is by no means a finished product, and he has work to do to become more consistent. But leading that drive, under those conditions, was significant. Pickett made a potential legacy-building throw, yet so much of the conversation was about how he was slightly off target at times. That felt like missing the forest for the trees.

I’m sure Pickett would have liked to have had a few of his throws back. One to Johnson, in particular, that went high on a crossing route that could have been a big catch-and-run were it more accurate. When you look around the league, though, it’s hard to find a quarterback who played in Saturday’s frigid conditions who didn’t struggle. Allen threw two picks in Chicago. Mahomes finished a pedestrian 16-28 in Kansas City. Deshaun Watson was terrible in snowy Cleveland. At worst, Pickett outplayed his Vegas counterpart, Derek Carr, who went 16-30 with three interceptions. Carr is widely regarded as a Top-10 quarterback in the league, yet he missed more throws than Pickett and looked far less comfortable handling the elements.

More impressive were the comments by Pickens after the game that Pickett called the plays in the final two minutes. It’s encouraging that he is already capable of handling that responsibility, and that the Steelers put the game on his shoulders both mentally and physically down the stretch. The offense must improve significantly for the Steelers to become contenders, But Pickett’s progress has been one of the most promising signs that it will.

Pickett was just one of the young Steelers who produced in the clutch on Saturday night. It was a huge drive for the marquee selections of Pittsburgh’s past two drafts, who delivered when they were needed most.