The pressure was amped up due to an extremely unique set of circumstances. Once in a lifetime type of circumstances. The 50th Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, and the retirement of Franco Harris’ number, which just so happens to only be the third number retired in Steelers history.
Those scheduled parameters alone would have raised the stakes to new heights, but the sudden passing of Franco Harris earlier this week, only days prior to the festivities planned in his honor, created the scenario of a game where failure wasn't an option.
It really didn't matter that a Steelers loss would have officially eliminated them from any playoff scenarios, considering that the Steelers chances are miniscule at best. This was the Steelers “win it for Franco” moment, and it unified the young and inexperienced roster like never before.
Steelers Stock Trending Up: Kenny Pickett
You never really know till you know. You know what I mean? We definitely know a lot more today than we did about Kenny Pickett prior to his clutch game winning touchdown drive against the Raiders under the aforementioned uniquely high pressure circumstances.
The key words of that statement being "clutch" and "winning". Two crucial words found in the portfolio of any potential franchise quarterback.
The stakes couldn't have been higher in a regular season game for Kenny Pickett. The pressure must have been immense for the young man, and he passed the test with flying colors.
Put it this way, if Pickett would have failed on that final touchdown drive, then the non-believers would have vocalized in unison mercilessly.
If he would have struggled with ball security in the rigid conditions, his hand size would have been the number one topic of discussion. If the windy conditions caused his passes to flutter ever so slightly, then a perceived lack of arm strength would be to blame.
Both narratives are untrue and overblown, as Pickett perfectly illustrated with his performance under extremely harsh conditions.
The magnitude of the moment was obviously not lost on the young man, and the rookie rose to the occasion like a potential franchise leader should. Pickett gave everything he had to give, which was evident in his on the field interview immediately after the conclusion of the game. It was easily apparent that he was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.
With the weight of a once in a lifetime moment on his shoulders, and in front of a prime time audience no less, Kenny Pickett staked his claim as the future at the position for the Steelers.
Once you have done it once, under those high pressure circumstances, you know you can do it again. That's invaluable for Kenny Pickett's development, and for the future success of the Steelers young collection of talent.
Steelers Stock Trending Up: Cameron Heyward
Cameron Heyward gave an unforgettable performance when it was needed most. A career defining moment from the current face of the franchise.
Cameron Heyward is the standard bearer for the Steelers, and he perfectly embodies precisely what it means to be a Pittsburgh Steeler. He was the only logical choice to carry the honorary flag commemorating Franco Harris during pregame introductions. Then he went out and carried the entire Steelers defense with an inspired performance for the ages.
Heyward played like a man possessed. He has started to show the inevitable impact of a career spent battling in the trenches at times this season, but against the Raiders, he was reborn. A performance befitting of his prime.
He dominated his one on one matchups with ease, gaining almost instant penetration and play disruption. Heyward had 2 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, and multiple pressures. He created utter chaos for the Raiders interior offensive line. He also manipulated and controlled double teams, undoubtedly giving an early glimpse at his future usage. Heyward refused to be denied, and set the tone for an inspired defensive performance for the Steelers.
Cameron's leadership was on full display leading up to the game, during the game, and immediately after. He fully comprehends and embraces the responsibility to pass on the Steelers Way to the next wave of young Steelers standouts.
We must appreciate a player and person of Cameron Heyward's caliber while we have them, because they don't come around very often. Hopefully he can win a Super Bowl, and a well deserved Walter Payton Award, during his Steelers career.
Steelers Stock Trending Up: Youth Movement
As I have been saying all season, I am more concerned with how the Steelers are winning games than the victories themselves. The victory over the Raiders on Christmas Eve represented so much more than just another positive mark on the right side of the ledger. Well, it would actually be on the left side, but that really doesn't matter, as you know what I mean.
Saturday night's victory represented evidential proof of sustainable improvement and substantial growth from the Steelers optimally young roster. In other words, Kenny Pickett was far from the only young Steelers standout that stepped up and balled out against the Silver and Black.
The Steelers still evolving offensive line continues to gel and improve, although they struggled at times against the Raiders defense designed to take away the Steelers interior running game. The line has improved their communication and execution over the second half of the season, and have done a much better job working in unison, especially on double teams.
It has honestly been refreshing to see the Steelers offensive line consistently generate interior push for the running game, particularly in short yardage. They are incredibly young, but experienced, all at the same time. The continuity achieved this season is invaluable, to the point adding another young stud and improved depth this offseason could result in an above average unit in 2023.
Najee Harris has to be encouraged by the line's progress. It's debatable if Harris struggles to begin this season were injury related, style induced, or both. Regardless, his recommitment to a punishing north south running style has paid huge dividends for the Steelers. The Steelers finally utilized him more in the passing game on Saturday, with outstanding results. Harris and Jaylen Warren form a potentially dynamic duo.
The Steelers talented young collection of receiving options are starting to form a logical and desperately needed pecking order. Rookie George Pickens has obvious WR1 potential, but needs more seasoning and an offseason to work on cleaning up his footwork. He continues to show weekly improvement, and his splash play potential draws special attention from the opposition. That extra attention creates opportunities for his teammates.
Diontae Johnson was miscast as the focal point of the Steelers passing attack to begin the season, but he can feast on mismatches as a possession receiver. Johnson should be more effective and efficient when utilized correctly.
That brings us to Pat Freiermuth, who is arguably the most talented young tight end in the AFC. George Pickens appears destined to be a big play machine as the Steelers leading man at wide receiver, facilitating the Pickett to Pickens connection. That being said, I wholeheartedly believe that Freiermuth will develop a special connection of his own with Kenny Pickett. We saw early evidence of that connection on the Steelers game winning touchdown drive Saturday night.
Freiermuth has reliable hands, runs solid routes, and has shown a knack for finding soft spots against zone coverages. He has every attribute needed to become Pickett's trusted security blanket. All he needs is some good health, and an offensive coordinator smart enough to highlight him in the weekly game plan. Come to think of it, the same thing holds true for George Pickens, arguably the most underutilized offensive talent in the league.