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Pittsburgh Steelers win via subtraction

Claiming their second consecutive win of the season on the road in Las Vegas, the Pittsburgh Steelers utilized a less-is-more approach which seems appropriate for a youthful team which clearly remains in transition. Eliminating offensive turnovers while their defense grabbed three interceptions, the Steelers largely played error-free football despite continuing to resemble a team with ample room for improvement. This win was more about mistakes avoided than attempting to dominate their opponent.

While their offensive issues persisted throughout the game, the Steelers managed to put enough points on the board to secure the 23-18 victory. Some questionable officiating led directly to the Raiders’ final TD, thus making the outcome closer than it otherwise would have been. On the other hand, the Steelers offense failed to exploit golden opportunities in the final quarter to put the game away by sputtering on two consecutive 3-and-out possessions that enabled the Raiders to trim Pittsburgh’s 23-7 advantage by scoring 11 unanswered points. Overall, the Steelers offense converted only six of 15 third downs while only improving their ground attack marginally (105 total yards rushing for a 3.4 yards-per-carry average).

Kenny Pickett’s overall performance was less than impressive (235 yards passing and a 71.2 QB rating), but he distinguished himself by taking care of the ball and not forcing throws into the Raiders’ mostly strong coverage. While his cautious approach might have been frustrating to watch, avoiding turnovers ultimately proved to be a key to this victory. When it counted most, Pickett delivered key TD passes to Calvin Austin III and Pat Freiermuth.

In general, Steelers Nation witnessed a young QB who appears acutely conscious of avoiding costly errors. Whereas certain other young QBs in the NFL have been known for throwing ill-advised passes early in their careers, Pickett deserves credit for recognizing when the defensive alignment simply prevents running the designated play. Already in his young career, Kenny resembles more the thoughtful QB and less the young gunslinger. In the long run, this trait of caution could prove quite beneficial to the team.

On the other hand, it’s puzzling that Pickett was repeatedly forced to sprint out of the pocket on various plays where he seemed to have adequate time and protection. While we might applaud his careful approach, it’s also reasonable to question why the Steelers receivers apparently were not breaking open throughout a majority of the game. For example, on the pass nearly intercepted by the Raiders (which could easily have been a pick-6), Pickett and Jaylen Warren obviously were on different pages. Combined with some other throws that were off target, it seems obvious that the overall comfort level and communications between Pickett and his receivers still isn’t what it ought to be.

Defensively, the Steelers’ overall picture looks more promising. Other than their inability to cover superstar wideout Davante Adams (13 catches for 172 yards), the Steelers’ defense had another strong performance. Holding the Raiders to only 68 yards rushing, the defense didn’t surrender any of the long runs that gashed them in their previous two games. One of the most promising aspects was Keeanu Benton’s emergence as a potential force in the middle of the Steelers’ DL. It’s tempting to imagine what this line will look like when Cam Heyward returns to the lineup. Other youngsters including DeMarvin Leal, Mark Robinson and Nick Herbig also appear to be improving steadily as they get more playing time.

Special teams play, especially the kicking game, was a key element in this victory. Both Pressley Harvin III and Chris Boswell distinguished themselves as reliable, clutch performers, while Calvin Austin III looks sure-handed and elusive as a return man. Overall, the Steelers’ kick coverage looked solid.

It might have been a blessing in disguise that the outcome in Las Vegas was narrower than fans expected after the Steelers took a 23-7 lead with about four minutes remaining in the third quarter. Had the Steelers won the game handily, the Nation might have been tempted to draw premature and largely unwarranted conclusions about this 2023 group. Viewed realistically, this important road win merely opens up some tantalizing possibilities regarding how the current season eventually might play out. Even the most rabid Steelers fans recognize that Jimmy Garoppolo is no Patrick Mahomes — nor even a Josh Allen or Joe Burrow. And this Raiders team is highly unlikely to find itself anywhere in the neighborhood of playoff football by the end of December. Furthermore, winning in this subtractive manner would face serious limitations when facing opponents blessed with potent offenses.

Nevertheless, winning inevitably accentuates the positive. At the very least, this victory can be viewed as a promising step in the team’s transition — hopefully to the team fans imagine it eventually will become. Sunday night’s effort featured a group of young Steelers earning valuable, professional experience in a winning effort. That’s nothing more or less than precisely the process required to gradually build a serious NFL contender. But at the same time, it’s far too early to harbor any inflated expectations for the Black-and-gold. At this early stage, we’re not sure yet exactly what to make of this group. Next Sunday in Houston, the hope is we’ll find these positive signs from what happened in Vegas didn’t decide to stay there.

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