It’s rare you can say something looks its best on a night in Vegas, but for the Pittsburgh Steelers offense, that was true Sunday.
The Pittsburgh offense looked more like a liability than an asset in its first two games. But it finally got on track in its 23-18 win over the Las Vegas Raiders, boosting the Steelers to 2-1 and into first place in the AFC North.
And if Kenny Pickett and Co. can continue to play like they did in Sin City, the Steelers will be a team to keep an eye on in the wide-open AFC.
“I think it’s a great step as a team,” Pickett said after the game. “To come on the road, back-to-back primetime wins – one at home, one on the road – it’s definitely a good feeling.”
The Steelers’ identity for almost a half-century has been avoiding turnovers, mainly by running the ball and playing exceptional defense. By playing that brand of hard-nosed football, they’ve won six Super Bowls, eight AFC championships, and 24 division titles.
That methodology still rings true in 2023. T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick are the most influential Steelers despite rarely touching the ball.
Pittsburgh’s offense won’t overwhelm teams like the Dolphins, Chiefs, or Bills do. But if they can produce a handful of sustained drives, kick two-to-three field goals per game, and produce a few big plays that either score or lead to touchdowns, the Steelers think their defense should handle the rest.
Pittsburgh did enough of that last week to hold off the rival Browns. But it executed even better against the Raiders.
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Sure, the Steelers were outgained 362-333, and certainly not all of their drives were masterpieces. But they won the turnover battle 3-0 – recording no turnovers for the first time this season – and their offense only committed one penalty.
Najee Harris had a season-high 65 rushing yards, and Pickett effectively managed the game by making plays with his arm and legs. He also made a gorgeous throw to Calvin Austin III on his 72-yard touchdown that tied the game in the first quarter.
“He made the necessary plays,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Pickett. “He did the job tonight.”
Chris Boswell made three field goals, including a 57-yarder. Pittsburgh’s offense turned those three Raiders turnovers into 10 points, including the highly effective six-play, 81-yard drive that culminated in Pat Freiermuth’s 13-yard touchdown that put Pittsburgh up 23-7 midway through the third quarter.
“I think you saw a lot of different things in that drive,” Pickett said. “There were a lot of different things in that drive that were really positive. I absolutely think that’s a positive we can take away.”
Coaches like Tomlin talk every week about playing mistake-free, complementary football. Teams without dynamic offenses have to play that way since they aren’t built to win games from behind. Pittsburgh is especially ill-equipped to do so without wide receiver Diontae Johnson, who missed the second of at least a four-game absence with a hamstring injury.
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But that’s also the way to win in the AFC North in November and December when the weather starts to turn. The Browns are winning the same way. The Ravens want to win that way – they just didn’t finish against the Colts. Only the Bengals are interested in putting on an offensive show, and they may not even be in the conversation if they fall to 0-3 on Monday night.
Through one-and-three-quarter games, it looked like it may be a long season in Pittsburgh. Now, things are trending up.
“I think we’re on track,” Pickett said. “There’s never a perfect game. There are things we wish we had back, that’s always the case, but I think we’re getting to that step.”