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Steelers Notebook: Major strides for the offense in the 23-18 win in Las Vegas

The following is a journal of Pittsburgh’s offensive possessions versus the Raiders, with one play highlighted from each drive and some summary notes and observations at the end.

1st Quarter

1st drive: 3 plays, 9 yards, 2:04 time of possession (Punt)

Entering the game, the Steelers had run the ball 92% of the time when they lined up under center. It was no surprise, then, that Las Vegas sent a safety blitz when Pittsburgh aligned that way on the first play of the game. The Steelers ran a Duo play, and the safety came through clean when rookie tight end Darnell Washington blocked out instead of sealing his inside gap. Najee Harris bounced the play wide and ran through a couple of tackles to make five yards. But it was a discouraging start from a schematic perspective. The drive ended two plays later when Connor Heyward was stopped on a fullback dive on 3rd-and-1 with Pickett (you guessed it) under center and the Raiders shooting gaps.

2nd drive: 3 plays, 4 yards, 1:00 (Punt)

Another 3-and-out. This one featured another aspect that has hamstrung the offense: Pickett bailing out of the pocket too early. On 3rd-and-6, he appeared to have Allen Robinson coming open just past the sticks on an in-cut to his right. But Pickett felt pressure, scrambled to his left and overthrew Calvin Austin III working back to the ball along the sideline. You really would have liked to see Pickett stay in the pocket in that situation and rip the throw to Robinson. That sort of pocket presence is among the next steps he must take in his evolution as an NFL quarterback.

3rd drive: 3 plays, 75 yards, 0:52 (Touchdown)

The Steelers snapped out of their doldrums with an explosive play TD, as Pickett hit Austin on a skinny post for a 72-yard touchdown. Credit a spectacular blitz pickup by Jaylen Warren for giving Pickett enough time to hang in the pocket and make the throw. Credit Pickett for standing in the pocket in the face of pressure and delivering a strike to Austin. And credit Matt Canada for the play call. Maybe Canada was inspired by Josh McDaniels throwing deep for a touchdown to Davonte Adams on 4th-and-1 on Las Vegas’s previous series. Whatever the impetus, it was a great call that produced a big result. Through three games, the Steelers now have as many touchdowns from outside the red zone (2) as they had all of last season.

4th drive: 6 plays, 14 yards, 3:40 (Punt)

After a miscommunication between Pickett and Connor Heyward resulted in what should have been a pick-six by Marcus Peters, Pickett converted a 3rd-and-7 throw to George Pickens to move the chains. But Vegas run-blitzed the Steelers on the ensuing 1st down, and unsurprisingly, the Steelers did not check out of the play. That created 2nd-and-long, and the Steelers could not recover.

2nd quarter

5th drive: 8 plays, 44 yards, 3:51 (Field goal)

Canada smartly moved the pocket to open the drive, rolling Pickett to his left and hitting Pat Freiermuth for a 14-yard gain. Much of the criticism of Canada these past few weeks has centered on his inability to help Pickett, who seems to be struggling to read coverage, by getting him easy throws from outside the pocket. He did so here, and it kick-started a drive that culminated in a 43-yard field goal from Chris Boswell that gave the Steelers a 10-7 lead.

6th drive: 11 plays, 54 yards, 5:08 (Field goal)

Another bootleg on 1st down, with Pickett rolling left off of a play fake and finding Pickens for 13 yards. Pickett aligned under center, the Raiders blitzed their safety again and (alas!) the Steelers caught them in it with the play action. Nice call by Canada, who may have done some self-scouting during the week. Later in the drive, however, after the Steelers had moved inside the Las Vegas 25-yard-line, he went back to a predictable under-center run and Vegas brought the house, dropping Harris for a four-yard loss. Seems the bootleg to start the drive didn’t deter the Raiders from staying aggressive in those situations. Boswell kicked another field goal to end the drive.

7th drive: 1 play, 6 yards, 0:38 (End of half)

The Steelers got the ball with 0:38 left in the half and two timeouts. Most teams would have run a drive-starter on 1st down, like a screen or zone-beater, to try to get into field goal range. But Pittsburgh handed the ball to Harris, then jogged to the locker room with a 13-7 lead. Steeler football, like it or not.

3rd quarter

8th drive: 9 plays, 52 yards, 4:29 (Field goal)

After starting the drive at their own 9, the Steelers advanced to the 26, where they faced 3rd-and-5. Canada dialed up Mesh, a staple of his passing attack, and Pickett hit Pickens with a perfect throw in stride that allowed the receiver to run after the catch. Pickens took the ball across midfield to the +42, setting up another Boswell field goal.

The difference in that throw, and some of the others Pickett has made this season which were off target or not as receiver-friendly, was time. Entering week 3, Pickett had been hit more than any quarterback in the league, so obviously he’s faced too much pressure this season. On this play the pocket was clean, and the result speaks for itself.

9th drive: 6 plays, 81 yards, 3:19 (Touchdown)

Following a Patrick Peterson interception, the Steelers opened with a nice drive starter, as Pickett hit Pickens on a quick slant off of a play fake to Harris for 17 yards. The play was almost identical to the one Vegas ran to open their preceding drive. This was the second time a Canada play call closely resembled a call McDaniels had just made. Was Canada stealing ideas from McDaniels as the game progressed? Probably not. But it’s possible Canada saw those calls by McDaniels, recognized similar ones in his own playbook and dialed them up. Whatever the case, the throw to Pickens jump-started the best offensive possession of the season for the Steelers, as they zipped down the field to score in six plays, finishing the drive with a bootleg to Pat Freiermuth for the score.

4th quarter

10th drive: 3 plays, 8 yards, 1:41 (Punt)

Leading 23-7 with 13:12 to go, the Steelers came out in 21-personnel and made three yards on 1st down on a rare tackle trap play where Dan Moore Jr. pulled and kicked the opposite defensive end. With the bigger personnel still on the field, I would have bet my house they would run the ball again on 2nd-and-7. But they came out in an empty set and threw a bubble screen to Warren, who made five yards. Then, on 3rd and 2, Pickett had a bad play, looking left initially and then bailing from a clean pocket and throwing incomplete to Warren when he had Austin wide open to his right:

There was no reason to bail here. Pickett simply had to slide right, continue with his progression and dump the ball to Austin for the 1st down. Again, Pickett remains a work in progress going through his progressions in the pocket, and this was a play that reminded us of that.

11th drive: 3 plays, 2 yards, 1:06 (Punt)

After Las Vegas closed the gap to 23-15 with a touchdown aided by an awful roughing the passer call on Minkah Fitzpatrick — the refs have no idea how to call the game anymore, and it’s making it almost impossible to play defense — the Steelers took over with 5:41 to play and… came out throwing? They rolled Pickett left on 1st down and he missed on a pass to Austin, stopping the clock and putting them in 2nd-and-10. That led to a predictable 3rd-and-long. Pickett threw a beautiful ball down the seam to a tightly covered Freiermuth that hit the tight end in the chest. But cornerback Nate Hobbs got his hand in to strip it away, and the Steelers went three-and-out again.

12th drive: 6 plays, 11 yards, 2:10 (Punt)

Leading 23-18 now, and Vegas with all three timeouts remaining plus the two-minute warning, the Steelers needed to make a 1st down to ice the game. They came out in 22-personnel, with tight ends Freiermuth and Washington and fullback Heyward all on the field. As they lined up with eight blockers across the formation, I said “Duo.” Sure enough, they hit their signature run play for five yards. After a Vegas timeout, they lined up in the same formation and ran it for two more. That brought up 3rd-and-3, the most critical call of the game for Canada and the offense.

When the Steelers came out in an empty formation, I thought, “Oh no.” I felt a little better when they motioned Harris into the backfield. But he lined up like an H-back. That meant a pass was coming. At the snap, Pickett rolled left, into a slot blitz from the Raiders. Freiermuth, who stayed in to protect, picked up the blitz, and Pickett found a wide open Allen Robinson in the flat in the area the blitzer had vacated:

It was a great call by Canada. As NBC announcer Cris Collinsworth said during the live television broadcast, the call demonstrated “an understanding of what might happen to you from the defense,” which is something Canada has often been criticized for failing to recognize. On this play, he did it, and it helped the Steelers all but kill the clock and finish off the Raiders.

NOTES

– It wasn’t pretty, but it was a great recipe for how the Steelers can win games. They ran the ball well enough (105 yards on 33 carries), didn’t turn it over, made timely plays on offense and were excellent on defense. The offense still has a long way to go, and 23 points is not enough to beat the league’s most elite teams. But for now, as they (hopefully) continue to improve, it’s a formula that works.

– Canada certainly improved with his play-calling. Yes, it’s problematic that teams are so aware of the run tendency when Pickett is under center that they brazenly blitz their safeties with no fear of repercussion. And yes, Canada needs to evolve the passing game from that look to include more than a few simple bootlegs. But he mixed things up nicely, moved Pickett out of the pocket, and anticipated what Vegas would do to earn the late 1st down that helped clinch the game. It won’t silence many of the calls for his job. But it was a step in the right direction.

– Pickett was better too. We can see his weaknesses, namely pocket presence and progressions. But when he’s outside of the pocket he uses his legs well to make plays and he’s more accurate with the football. Having time to throw helps too. Pickett must also like the bright lights, as he’s now 5-1 in prime-time football.

– Finally, a shout-out to the offensive line. After drawing tough assignments the first two weeks against San Francisco and Cleveland, the line played well. Pickett was sacked just once, and when Canada didn’t hamstring them with predictable play calls, they worked their double teams on the Duo play to open some nice holes for Harris and Warren. All in all, it was a good night for the big guys up front.

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