It wasn't pretty, but the Pittsburgh Steelers found a way to defeat the Oakland Raiders 38-35 in a thrilling Week 9 game at Heinz Field. The Steelers secondary surrendered four touchdowns and over 300 yards passing to Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. But for the second straight week, a Pittsburgh defensive back made a game-changing play when the team needed it the most.
In this edition of Steelers Film Room, we'll take a closer look at two of Carr's touchdown passes, as well as the game-saving fourth quarter interception made by nickel back Ross Cockrell.
The Steelers defense had its hands full with a red-hot Raiders offense, which entered Sunday's matchup averaging 35.5 points over its previous two games. Carr tossed four touchdown passes in a Week 8 win over the New York Jets, and picked up right where he left off in Pittsburgh.
Oakland drew first blood, marching 66 yards in three plays on its opening drive, which was capped off by a 22-yard touchdown pass from Carr to wide receiver Michael Crabtree. The Steelers responded with a Chris Boswell field goal, and later, a DeAngelo Williams touchdown run with 13:57 remaining in the second quarter. Pittsburgh converted the ensuing two-point conversion, taking an 11-7 lead.
But the Raiders would respond.
With 6:05 remaining in the first half, Carr hit his favorite target, rookie wide receiver Amari Cooper, on a 15-yard touchdown strike to the corner of the end zone. Cooper, the fourth overall pick in this year's NFL Draft, entered the game with 565 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
On the play, Cooper lines up in the slot right on first-and-ten from the Steelers 15-yard line, with wide receiver Seth Roberts flanked out wide to his right. Roberts runs a skinny post, and Cooper rubs off of him, before sprinting to the corner of the end zone uncovered.
Cornerback Antwon Blake is responsible for the deep third of the field, but is lured inside by Carr's eyes. Blake tends to be over aggressive on occasion, and he paid for it on this play. Instead of following Cooper to the corner, he follows Roberts inside, where safety Mike Mitchell is already maintaining solid zone coverage.
Linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier appear confused, and both take a step toward the running back in the right flat. It's unclear what each of their responsibilities are on this play, but it appears at least one of them should have run with Roberts down the middle of the field.
The blown coverage allowed the Raiders to retake the lead, 14-11.
Last week, with the Steelers hanging to a late fourth-quarter lead, it was Blake who came up with what should have been a game-saving interception in the end zone. This week, it was nickel back Ross Cockrell, who picked off Carr in the end zone as Pittsburgh clung to a 35-28 lead.
The interception came at a critical juncture in the game.
A disastrous sequence of events in the fourth quarter, which began with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's exiting with a foot injury, and ended with a muffed punt by wide receiver Antonio Brown, set the Raiders up with a first-and-ten on the Steelers 12-yard line with 4:31 remaining in the game.
Two incomplete passes later it was third-and-ten, with the outcome hanging in the balance.
On third down, the Raiders come out in a four-wide set, with rookie tight end Clive Walford, Crabtree and Cooper flanked out to the left. Carr operates from the shotgun, and stares down Walford, but the two aren't on the same page. Walford breaks off his route earlier than Carr anticipates, and Cockrell reads the quarterbacks eyes, leaving his man to go make a play on the ball.
A touchdown by the Raiders would have tied to game, and totally deflated the Steelers, who needed to find a way to close out the game without their franchise quarterback.
Cockrell is now tied for the team lead with two interceptions. The second-year corner, who the team claimed off waivers at the beginning of September, has been a revelation for the Steelers this season. Per Football Outsiders, he was on the field for 80 percent of the defensive snaps on Sunday. He continues to be a major contributor.
Cockrell's interception should have ended the game, as Brown hauled in a Landry Jones pass to move the chains on the ensuing drive, with 2:36 remaining in the final quarter. The Raiders had just one timeout left to burn, and it appeared the Steelers would be able to run out the clock, but wide receiver Markus Wheaton was flagged for pass interference, and they were forced to punt.
With 2:15 on the clock and one timeout left in its possession, Oakland's offense executed a game-tying drive, capped off by a 38-yard touchdown pass from Carr to Crabtree with 1:21 remaining.
On the touchdown play, the Raiders come out in five-wide set, with Carr in the shotgun. At the snap, the Steelers defense switches from a cover-3 look, to a cover 2. Mitchell blitzes, and strong safety Will Allen rotates to fill his spot, while cornerback William Gay falls back to fill the deep-left zone vacated by Allen.
Carr's quick release allows him to unload the ball before Mitchell's blitz gets home. Timmons, the mike linebacker, doesn't get enough depth, and isn't able to stay with Crabtree down the seam. Gay isn't able to provide help for Timmons over the top, as he's already committed himself to covering the deep sideline route by Roberts, who's a total mismatch for 37-year-old linebacker James Harrison.
The Steelers defense entered Week 9 ranked No. 6 in scoring defense (18.4) PPG, but allowed a season-worst 35 points to the Raiders. The secondary didn't have its best day, allowing Carr to toss four touchdown passes and throw for over 300 yards.
But before we criticize a unit that's continually over-achieved week in and week out, we should give credit to the Raiders offense, which has proven to be one of the most explosive in the NFL in 2015. Oakland ranks No. 7 in scoring offense (26.6 PPG) and No. 8 in yards per game (376.7). Carr has thrown for 19 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions, and both Cooper and Crabtree are on pace for 1,000-yard seasons.
The front seven was unable to generate consistent pressure on Carr, making it difficult for the secondary to maintain coverage on the Raiders talented receiving corps. The Steelers defense failed to record a sack for the first time this season.
Pittsburgh's secondary also deserves credit for forcing two crucial turnovers on Sunday. Mitchell's forced fumble, resulting from a devastating hit on running back Latavius Murray, ended a potential Raiders scoring drive that penetrated inside the Steelers 30-yard line. And, as we mentioned above, Cockrell's interception was a game saver.
The Steelers rank No. 8 in scoring defense (20.2 PPG) and No. 26 against the pass (273 YPG), stats reflective of the teams bend-don't-break mentality this season. Keith Butler's unit also ranks No. 20 in interceptions (8) through nine weeks, after recording a total of just ten in 2013, and eleven in 2014.
The Steelers secondary lacks the pedigree of the front seven, but has exceeded expectations in 2015. Being opportunistic, playing physical, and being stingy in the red zone, has helped make up for other deficiencies. Last Sunday we saw some mental errors and blown assignments, but that's simply part of the growing process for a group that's continuing to develop continuity and improve with each passing week.