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Steelers go to Vegas and take care of business against the Raiders

It’s weird to say that a team like the Steelers, one that went into Sunday night’s game as a 2.5-point underdog, took care of business vs. a Raiders squad that was also 1-1 and hosting the Week 3 clash at Allegiant Stadium.

But that’s what Pittsburgh’s 23-18 victory felt like.

Actually, it was very similar to many of the wins the Steelers posted during their 7-2 push to close out the 2022 regular season. Few seemed all that impressed by second-half wins over the likes of Atlanta and Carolina, teams that were considered “lesser” opponents. Never mind that many of these teams had similar mediocre records and were also fighting to get into the postseason.

Equally mediocre or not, the Steelers often got the better of the play against their post-bye opponents in 2022.

To me, that was a sign of progress.

The 2023 campaign has started out following a similar script to 2022.

After the Steelers got their doors blown off by the 49ers in Week 1 and simply survived the Browns in Week 2–both at Acrisure Stadium–they went on the road and mostly beat up Las Vegas on Sunday Night Football.

It didn’t look like a blowout, but it felt like Pittsburgh had control of the game the moment Kenny Pickett connected with Calvin Austin III on a 72-yard touchdown pass to knot the score at seven with 6:12 remaining in the first quarter.

From there, the Steelers used takeaways, a strong pass rush–the defense had eight quarterback hits and four sacks (including two more for T.J. Watt)–and a semi-effective ground attack to slowly take control of the action.

Speaking of the rushing attack, 105 yards on 31 carries may not seem like much, but it sure was an improvement over the first two weeks. As for the Raiders ground game? Pittsburgh limited Las Vegas to 69 yards, which was a far cry from Week 2 when Cleveland posted 198 yards on Monday Night Football.

The only Raiders weapon that really hurt Pittsburgh’s defense was receiver Davante Adams, who caught 13 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns. Thankfully, it was a far cry from Week 1 when every 49ers weapon seemed to hurt the Steelers’ defense in a 30-7 blowout loss.

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t really damage the Steelers’ defense. In fact, he looked like a facsimile of Derek Carr but with better facial symmetry. Garoppolo completed 28 of 44 passes for 324 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.

Garoppolo didn’t play like the better quarterback, though.

Pickett performed like the better quarterback on Sunday night. He completed 16 of 28 passes for 235 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Let me rewind a bit: Pickett threw two touchdowns in one game, which was a first for the second-year man from Pitt.

Hopefully, it wasn’t the best game Pickett will ever play, but it may have been the best one he’s had so far, as evidenced by his 108.5 passer rating.

When Pickett threw that unicorn of a second touchdown–a 13-yard strike to Pat Freiermuth–to make it 23-7 late in the third quarter, it felt like the game was all but sealed.

Sure, the Raiders were able to sneak back into it thanks to Adams’ second touchdown catch along with a two-point conversion to tight end Michael Mayer to make it 23-15 with 5:41 left in regulation, but it didn’t feel like Las Vegas had many chips remaining on the table.

The Raiders had three, actually. For whatever reason, head coach Josh McDaniels decided to kick a field goal on fourth and four from the eight and his team trailing by eight with 2:22 remaining.

I thought McDaniels was supposed to be an offensive guru and a branch on Bill Belichick’s coaching tree. Oh well, so much for those two ad-nauseam talking points.

Sunday’s win may have felt similar to many the Steelers notched at the end of 2022, but at least it improved their record to 2-1–something they could not say in 2022 or the year before that.

The Steelers now find themselves in first place in the AFC North. Have they improved to the point where they can contend with the elite teams in the NFL? If you really think so, I believe the 49ers would like a word.

But at least they still know how to methodically control those lesser teams who appear to be their equals.

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