The Pittsburgh Steelers emerged victorious on Christmas Eve, but did they really ‘grow up’ with their performance against the Raiders?
“We grew up tonight…we grew up tonight,” Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin charismatically told second-year RB Najee Harris and others in his path immediately following his team’s thrilling 13-10 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders on Christmas Eve at Acrisure Stadium.
Did they though?
It’s true that it was rookie QB Kenny Pickett who threw a 14-yard TD pass to fellow rookie WR George Pickens with just 46 seconds remaining to give the Steelers the victory and keep their playoff hopes alive.
And would you believe that was just the fourth time in the Super Bowl era that a rookie QB threw a game-winning TD to a rookie receiver in the final two minutes of regulation?
Yes, that’s true as well.
But was this performance against the Raiders, coming back from a 10-3 halftime deficit and winning it in the final seconds of the game, the actual turning point for this young Steelers offense?
Biggest questions Steelers must answer
For starters, let’s talk about the starters. The Steelers (7-8) began the 50th Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception game against the Raiders with a starting line-up on offense that consisted of five players (Pickett, Pickens, Harris, TE Pat Freiermuth, and LT Dan Moore Jr.) in their first or second season in the NFL.
The other six offensive starters against the Raiders included a third-year player (LG Kevin Dotson), two fourth-year players (WR Diontae Johnson and WR Miles Boykin), and three fifth-year players (RT Chuks Okorafor, RG James Daniels, and C Mason Cole).
Overall, the Steelers’ starting offense last week had an average of just 3.09 years of experience in the NFL, with an average age of just 24.6 years old.
Why Steelers got off to a slow start
Eight of the 11 offensive starters against the Raiders are in their first or second year with the Steelers. In other words, Dotson, Johnson, and Okorafor were the only starters who had experienced the COVID season of 2020 when the Steelers started 11-0.
Then there’s the fact that Steelers’ offensive coordinator Matt Canada is only in his second season of calling plays in the NFL after being the team’s quarterback coach.
Like it or not, despite the calls from fans and media for his firing, Canada has been better at his job since the “bye week” following a 2-6 start. The Steelers offense has put an increased emphasis on the running game and it has performed remarkably better as a result over the last seven games.
Besides scoring a season-high 30 points in the home loss to the Bengals, the Steelers also rank second in the NFL in rushing attempts (232), third down conversions (51), and third down conversion percentage (52.0) over weeks 10-16. In addition, the Steelers rank 10th in the league with an average of 138.9 rushing yards per game and have scored 10 rushing touchdowns (tied for 3rd) in that span.
How well did Steelers players perform?
Of the 10 offensive players who touched the ball against the Raiders, four are rookies (Pickett, Pickens, RB Jaylen Warren, and FB/TE Connor Heyward), and three others (Harris, Freiermuth, WR Steven Sims) are only in their second year with the team. The others who either caught a pass or had a rushing attempt included Johnson, TE Zach Gentry (4th-year), and FB Derek Watt (7th-year; 3rd with the Steelers).
Let’s take a look at how some of these young players impacted the game, particularly over the last three minutes of the contest when the Steelers rallied from a 10-6 deficit:
- On a night that was meant to honor the late Franco Harris, it was his namesake that helped lead the Steelers to victory. Najee Harris had arguably his best overall game of the season, leading the Steelers in rushing (16 carries, 53 yards) and catching six passes for 42 yards. Three of those receptions came on the game-winning drive, including a 19-yard catch-and-run with 1:38 remaining that set the Steelers up at the Raiders’ 24-yard-line.
- Freiermuth led the Steelers with seven receptions for 66 yards. Like Harris, he had three key receptions for 17, 10, and four yards on the game-winning drive. The 4-yard catch with 1:01 to play set up a 4th and 1 from the Raiders’ 15-yard-line.
- After a timeout with 55 seconds remaining, Pickett converted that 4th and 1 with a quarterback sneak. On the next play, he fired the game-winning touchdown pass to Pickens on a slant route between two defenders. Pickett finished 26-of-39 for 244 yards passing and added nine rushing yards on the night. Pickens caught five passes for 57 yards in the game.
- Warren and Connor Heyward, two rookie reserves, also had big plays in the win. Warren rushed for 22 of his 23 yards on the Steelers’ lone-scoring drive of the first half, a 44-yard Chris Boswell field goal that cut the Raiders’ lead to 7-3. Heyward stepped up when the Steelers were attempting to run out the clock at the end of the game, successfully converting a 21-yard run with just 25 seconds remaining to clinch the victory.
Can we expect to see more of the same from the Steelers
We’ll find out Sunday when the Steelers try to keep their playoff hopes alive at rival Baltimore. The Ravens have already clinched a playoff spot and will likely be playing without starting QB Lamar Jackson.
However, that didn’t stop the Ravens from beating the Steelers, 16-14, three weeks ago in Pittsburgh. Jackson didn’t play in that game either, and backup Tyler Huntley was injured in the second half. Yet, thanks to a strong rushing attack the Ravens still managed to close the game out behind their third-string quarterback just called up from the practice squad.
Pickett was also knocked out of that Ravens game early on with a concussion, so the offense sputtered with backup Mitch Trubisky throwing three key interceptions, including two while driving for potential points.
The Steelers should have won that game but failed to take advantage of their opportunities. Still, Pittsburgh has won four of its last five games, but none of the four teams the Steelers have defeated in that span (Indianapolis, Atlanta, Carolina, and Las Vegas) have a winning record.
For what it’s worth, Pittsburgh doesn’t have a winning record at the moment either. However, a win at Baltimore would even their record at .500 with one game to play (home against Cleveland on Jan. 8).
Playoffs or not, if the Steelers will ‘grow up’ if this team wins out
It would almost be poetic if it happened, with a guy named Harris spearheading the game-winning drive, and a rookie catching the winning touchdown in the final seconds against the Raiders, just as Franco did in that 13-7 victory in 1972.
Franco’s shoestring catch and subsequent score off Jack Tatum’s deflection didn’t lead to a Super Bowl that year, as Pittsburgh was defeated in the playoffs the next week. But it is widely considered to be the turning point that led to a Steelers dynasty in the 1970s.
Could this year’s victory over the Raiders be a similar turning point? A man can hope…but that remains to be seen.
If nothing else, a pair of wins to close out the regular season will mean that the Steelers will head into the off-season (or playoffs) with great momentum, having won six of their last seven games (and seven of their last nine) with an extremely young and talented offense hitting its stride.
That’s something Franco would be proud of.