The Steelers showed flashes of being a good football team in their 23-18 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday Night Football, but they still have a long way to go before they get there. That being said, Pittsburgh currently holds a 2-1 record and sits atop the AFC North. Just as everyone predicted, right? As always, there are plenty of takeaways to be had.
1. A blast from the past
Call it improvement, call it more of the same, but the Steelers last night looked a lot like the team did during their winning streak to close out the 2022 season. Outside of some ugly throws while he was still settling in early in the game, Kenny Pickett played fairly smart and effectively while using his mobility to keep plays alive. His competence through the air opened up the Steelers’ ground attack some, which didn’t explode for any big plays but looked at least NFL caliber. Similarly, offensive coordinator Matt Canada didn’t stand out negatively for the first time this season. On the other side of the ball, the defense made some splash plays and held the opposing team to under 20 points, helping the offense do just enough to secure the victory.
The good news is that this Steelers team looks like it might not be worse than they were last year — but the bad news is that although the Steelers can handle second-rate teams, they’re still nowhere close to competing with the NFL’s elite...
2. Struggling against the elite
The Steelers’ last few seasons boil down to the above statement. They’ve proven again and again to be too talented to be grouped in with the bottom tier of NFL clubs, but they’ve wallowed in that mediocrity instead of building something that can compete for a Super Bowl. The Steelers’ last two wins against the Raiders and Browns are cause for some optimism — Pittsburgh looks to be on its way to another how-did-they-do-it winning season after a putrid start Week 1 — but they’re still a far cry away from the playoff-caliber team they looked like following the offseason and preseason hype. The Steelers aren’t bad, but they still are going to be outmatched against the elite.
That’s true on a macro level, but also the micro. The Steelers’ secondary can make plays — they had three interceptions against the Raiders on Sunday — but they still have no answer to an elite wide receiver like Davante Adams, who was unstoppable all day to the tune of 13 catches, 172 yards, and 2 touchdowns. And the Steelers’ offensive tackles continue to have no response for upper-tier pass rushes, including the 49ers’ defensive line, the Browns and Myles Garrett, and the Raiders and Maxx Crosby...
3. It’s time for Broderick Jones
Steeler fans know that Broderick Jones isn’t perfect despite clamoring for him to replace Dan Moore Jr., because much like the Levi Wallace/Joey Porter Jr. debate, they’d rather see a rookie struggle and learn rather than a veteran struggle and continue to play the same. It’s that simple. The Steelers’ offensive tackles have been turnstiles all year, and even if Broderick Jones will struggle early on, the veterans in front of him on the depth chart haven’t shown enough to keep him off the field any longer. The Steelers spent a first-round pick on Jones. It’s time to see what he can do.
4. No confidence in the Steelers offense... from either team
The Steelers got the ball back, up by six, with 38 seconds and two timeouts left in the second half. Instead of trying anything remotely similar to an attempt to go up by two possessions before the half, the Steelers decided to run out the clock and settle for their six-point lead. Later, with just under 2:30 left in the game, Raiders’ head coach Josh McDaniels decided to kick a field goal down eight on a fourth & four in the red zone instead of trying for the touchdown. He decided to bet that the Steelers’ offense would go three and out and give the ball right back in time for the Raiders to score a game-winning touchdown.
McDaniels’ decision was obviously unwise, and it could be argued that it had more to do with trusting his defense than the Steelers’ offense, but both his decision and the Steelers’ unwillingness to try for a score at the end of the first half show a remarkable lack of confidence in Pittsburgh’s offense by both teams. Make no mistake about it: despite the Steelers’ many verbal votes of trust in Matt Canada, no one in the NFL has much belief in this Pittsburgh offense. The Steelers may have looked passable on Sunday, but change is still desperately needed.
5. Big play potential
Now for a positive regarding the Steelers’ offense. For the second straight week, the Steelers hit on a 70+ yard pass play for a big, momentum-boosting touchdown. Even with Diontae Johnson on injured reserve, George Pickens and Calvin Austin III have shown they can be consistent playmakers. If Kenny Pickett can continue to have the time to hit a few big downfield throws a game, it’ll do wonders towards keeping the defense honest and opening up plays elsewhere for the offense. The Steelers’ big play ability is shocking considering how anemic they’ve looked on offense all year, but it’s certainly a welcome trend.
6. Another big game for Pressley Harvin
It’s rare for a punter to be one of the biggest stars of the game for back-to-back weeks, but Pittsburgh’s Pressley Harvin has managed to do exactly that. He landed three of his six punts inside the 20-yard line with an impressive 53.8 yards per boot against the Raiders. The hangtime he can put on punts continues to be a strength, giving the Steelers’ punt coverage more time to get downfield and making it more difficult for the returner. Harvin’s highlight of the night was a high-hanging, directional punt near the end of the game that Raiders’ returner DeAndre Carter muffed and barely recovered, backing up Las Vegas to their own 15. Harvin’s punt left the Raiders needing 85 yards in 12 seconds to win the game, something they didn’t manage to pull off.
Harvin has struggled with consistency before, and the punting conditions will only worsen this year, but for now it’s great for the Steelers to have a field-flipping weapon on special teams.
7. Can’t hit low... can’t hit high
Steelers’ safety Minkah Fitzpatrick
drew the ire of some NFL fans last week with his low hit that injured the knee of Browns’ star running back Nick Chubb. It wasn’t flagged or fined, as it clearly wasn’t a dirty hit, but Fitzpatrick was still critiqued by some for not hitting higher. Irony struck on Sunday when Fitzpatrick hit Jimmy Garoppolo a little high on a sack in which the Raiders’ quarterback ducked right before contact. Fitzpatrick was flagged for roughing the passer.
It’s not lost on me that the comparison is slightly apples-to-oranges. Different rules do apply for hits on running backs vs. quarterbacks. But the point still stands: defenders always tend to be the bad guy on big hits, but with offensive players moving around at full speed, it’s hard for defenders to always tackle perfectly by the book while still playing effectively. Most NFL fans know that, but it’s a shame that Fitzpatrick will have to deal with the “is-he-a-dirty-player” discourse for yet another week.
8. Steelers odds and ends
- I sound like a broken record every week, but T.J. Watt continues to be a force of nature on the Steelers’ defense. He recorded another multi-sack game this season against the Raiders and harassed Jimmy Garoppolo all night.
- Speaking of the Steelers’ pass rush, the Raiders’ offensive tackles got away with a few egregious holds over the course of the game. It was a poor showing for the referees overall.
- The Raiders’ rushing offense hasn’t been great this season by any means, but the Steelers’ run defense still delivered a bounce-back game after getting shredded on the ground the past two weeks.
- Don’t let Chris Boswell’s fantastic game slip under the radar. He was perfect on extra point attempts and field goals, even nailing a 57-yarder right down the middle at one point.
- Corners Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace have received a lot of criticism this season — some of it well deserved — but they also deserve credit for combining for three interceptions that played a key role in the Steelers’ victory. That being said, the Pittsburgh secondary still got torched by Davante Adams, meaning there’s still plenty of poor film to go over.
- Cole Holcomb and the Steelers’ middle linebackers continue to contribute a few splash plays a game. You’d still like to see more from the group, but they’ve been a definite improvement over last year’s ILB play.
- The Steelers activated Desmond King for kickoff returns but still haven’t played him on defense. It remains to be seen if the Steelers don’t have a lot of confidence in King or if they have a lot of confidence in Chandon Sullivan. It doesn’t make a ton of sense either way.
- The Steelers seem to be embracing the more straightforward style of run game that won them games last season. It was far from perfect against the Raiders but undeniably a step in the right direction. Still, you’d like to see more against one of the NFL’s worst run defenses.
- Damontae Kazee is a hard hitter. He’s a great physical presence on defense but I also brace for a flag every time he’s on the screen.
- Montravius Adams has struggled this season but his first step is lightning-fast. Keeanu Benton should and will keep stealing snaps from Adams, but there’s a reason the latter is still seeing playing time.
- After seeming uncomfortable early on, Kenny Pickett really settled in en route to his first two-passing-touchdown game as a pro. Against the Raiders he seemed more confident and comfortable staying in the pocket than he has all season.
- Pittsburgh fans deserve credit for creating a home-game atmosphere in Las Vegas. As TJ Watt stated in his postgame interview, it played a role in the Steelers’ victory.
- Mike Tomlin complimenting the Raiders’ “dangerous eligibles” at halftime instead of just saying that they have good receivers should be getting more press as a new Tomlinism. It’s absolute gold.
Despite a bevy of issues still remaining, the Steelers looked the best they have this season against the Raiders. Hopefully, the improvements continue to come with a slate of winnable games around the bend.
What are your overreactions and takeaways from Steelers vs. Raiders? Agree/disagree with the ones above? Join our Behind The Steel Curtain community and let us know in the comments!