The Pittsburgh Steelers fell to the Las Vegas Raiders 26-17 this Sunday. After a remarkable performance from their defense, the Steelers upset the Buffalo Bills last week; the Raiders also won their opener in dramatic fashion against Pittsburgh’s rival, the Baltimore Ravens. Even though the Steelers’ offense played very inconsistently in Week 1, most seemed to expect them to beat Last Vegas, given that they had to travel across the country on a short week after a very emotional win. However, the Raiders got the best of the Steelers on Sunday for a number of reasons. We’ll begin our recap of the Steelers and Raiders matchup discussing injuries.
One element of this loss was the mounting injuries for the Steelers. Now obviously, every team deals with injuries; the Raiders lost both their starting guards at the beginning of the week, along with their starting running back. But the Steelers’ injury problems began late in the week. On Friday, cornerback Joe Haden and linebacker Devin Bush appeared on the injury report with “questionable” designations. On Sunday, both were declared inactive.
To make matters worse, two more starters suffered injuries that knocked them out of the game on Sunday. Tyson Alualu fractured his ankle and could be lost for the season. But the worst loss came when TJ Watt pulled up in the first quarter. He went to the sideline and discarded his helmet and gloves. When he came out for the second half, he was in street clothes. Watt indicated that he suffered a groin injury, like Haden and Bush, but should be ready to go for this week’s game.
Again, injuries are a part of the NFL. But losing four starters late in the week, including two during the game, prevents the coaches from being able to gameplan around these absences and get the backups reps with the starters. There’s also the fact that losing a consistent DPOY candidate and arguably the best edge defender in the NFL makes a significant negative impact on the defense. At the end of the day, it’s hard to expect a defense to be their best when they’re missing four starters with no practice to prep for it. But let’s dive into the actual game.
Steelers Raiders Recap: Defense
Against the Bills, the Steelers did an excellent job at preventing explosive plays. They also prevented Stefon Diggs from destroying them like in their 2020 matchup. Part of this success is attributable to the Steelers’ willingness to sell out to stop the pass and play different types of coverages. Obviously, Pittsburgh’s pass rush helped as well, as they kept Josh Allen from being comfortable in the pocket. Mike Tomlin and the coaching staff took elements from their game plan against Buffalo and applied them to their matchup with Las Vegas. This strategy worked for a time.
The Steelers took extreme measures to eliminate tight end Darren Waller from the Raiders’ game plan. Waller earned double coverage, typically with an underneath defender and a safety over the top. Essentially, Pittsburgh wanted Derek Carr to beat them with his other, not-as-elite weapons. For most of the game, the Steelers’ defense shut down Waller and forced the Raiders to kick field goals.
However, in the second half, the defense began to crack and erode. Darren Waller started getting involved; more importantly, the Raiders took advantage of the Steelers’ focus on Waller. Carr comfortably targeted his other weapons, distributing the ball to whoever was open. Players like Wille Snead, Derek Carrier, and Foster Moreau made clutch catches, with the latter scoring the Raiders’ first touchdown.
The Slow Knife
The backbreaker, of course, came on a beautiful deep shot to Henry Ruggs III. The color commentator, Charles Davis, noted this on the broadcast: the Steelers’ focus on Darren Waller gave just enough room to get Ruggs open on that play. On that play, Minkah Fitzpatrick played as the single-high safety but kept his eyes on Waller. Carr made sure Fitzpatrick held his place, as Carr kept his eyes on Waller as well; Carr even added a very subtle pump fake to get Fitzpatrick to cheat towards Waller. Minkah got back but was just an inch/second too late and in a flash, Ruggs was in the end zone.
There’s a lot of blame to be distributed for this play. One could obviously blame Minkah for not keeping proper depth. Against a guy like Ruggs, you have to make sure you keep the lid on the pot, so to speak. But I’m sure the coaches instructed Minkah to keep his eyes on Waller and make sure he doesn’t beat you deep. Furthermore, on 3rd and 9, you have to expect Carr is looking at Waller to convert. Give Carr tons of credit here; he took advantage of that assumption, and he threw a perfect ball to Ruggs.
You could also assign some blame to Ahkello Witherspoon. Obviously, your job as a corner is to prevent a receiver from getting behind you; against a speed demon like Ruggs, that should be your only concern. But give credit to Ruggs here; if you look at the play above, he adds a little hesi-move to his route, causing Witherspoon to freeze and allowing Ruggs to get open.
One might bring up the fact that Witherspoon was playing where Joe Haden would usually line up. Even though Haden is obviously a superb technician as a cover corner, such that he doesn’t need to rely on his speed, I don’t think he would have done a much better job. At the end of the day, the Raiders offense did an excellent job executing, even when the Steelers took away their primary weapon. Pittsburgh wanted Las Vegas to beat them with their third and fourth options; they did just that.
Steelers Raiders Recap: Offense
The Steelers offense has averaged 16.5 points through two games, a far cry from the explosive, versatile unit of the mid-2010s. However, in comparison to their performance last week, I would argue they looked markedly improved. Opening the game last week, the Steelers punted on every drive in the first half, going three and out on two of those five drives.
This week, they still didn’t score until midway through the second quarter. But they only went three and out once. Two of their first three drives ended in turnovers (an interception and a turnover on downs). Despite those mistakes, Ben Roethlisberger played very well, arguably his best game since last October (granted, that isn’t saying much). He did a good job surveying the defense and throwing to the right receiver. We even saw him throw some very nice deep balls. Not all of them were caught but more often than not, they were decently accurate and gave the receiver a legitimate chance to make a play on the ball.
However, Ben was very reticent to test the defense over the middle in the intermediate range. This was most likely due to the Raiders’ coverage schemes. But to have a complete offense, you need to threaten that area. Hopefully, the Steelers can incorporate that into their offense in the coming weeks.
With that being said, the most pressing issue for the Steelers’ offense is the offensive line. Roethlisberger still did a solid job of getting rid of the ball quickly. But he took too many hard hits. Dan Moore Jr. took a step back in his second career start and Chukwuma Okorafor had another rough day at the office. The bigger problem, as many would expect was the run blocking. While it was somewhat improved relative to last week, as Najee Harris had a better game, it still isn’t good enough. Harris got stopped behind the line multiple times and he’s getting physically punished by defenders every play.
Luckily, there is a remedy for these symptoms, although it might be unpleasant: time and patience. The Steelers’ offensive line in the mid-to-late-2010s was so dominant because they were experienced veterans with great chemistry as a unit. This offensive line features two rookies, a second-year player in his first year as a starter, a fourth-year player who is technically a backup and still their weakest link, and a veteran on his third team with pass-blocking limitations. Nothing is going to help this offensive line more than playing time with each other. This line is going to take their lumps, especially the younger guys. But that’s the necessary evil to get better.