Feats of Strength: The Dormant Steelers offense comes late; defense responds to bad start

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Hey, the Steelers’ victory over the Raiders in the Immaculate Reception game wasn’t exactly a beauty either, was it?

That game went 13-7 Steelers on December 23, 1972. And they looked like they were in trouble until the very end.

The game between the clubs on Christmas Eve 2022 turned out to be 13-10 in favor of the Steelers. Hopefully Franco Harris somewhere was watching this one and appreciating the symmetry.

Mike Tomlin’s team had only one offensive move worth remembering and plenty of moves I’d like to forget. The defense got off to a terrible start but a fantastic finish.

The stadium was much emptier than usual, but the fans who were there had their throats full all night. Maybe it was too much eggnog, or they were just in the Christmas spirit. But they insisted.

In the end, the Steelers ended up on the good list more often than the naughty list, and their Christmas wish to stay alive in the playoff race and stay above . 500 for another year is intact. For now.

Here’s a Christmas edition of “Feats of Strength” and “Airing of Grievances” borrowed from all our friends who celebrate Festivus this time of year.

feats of strength

defensive turn: Given the circumstances surrounding Franco Harris’ jersey retirement and the anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, everyone had their minds on the 1970s. But the Steelers’ opening defensive series was anything but Steel Curtain worthy.

The Raiders kicked off and stormed 72 yards in 14 plays for a touchdown. The opening march lasted 8 minutes and 22 seconds. Derek Carr capped it off with a scoring pass to Hunter Renfrow, who kept his balance and pushed Tre Norwood on his way to the end zone.

The touchdown pass was on a third-and-7 snap. The Raiders previously converted a third-and-16 and a third-and-1 on the drive.

But from there, the Steelers defense was solid. Allowed just three more points and intercepted Derek Carr three times.

Cam Heyward was particularly strong, collecting two sacks, seven tackles (three for a loss) and a pass deflection.

“We gave up a couple yards on that first drive, but I think we settled in, we tackled better, we tried to contain some of those explosive offensive players that they have,” Heyward said. “(Darren) Waller, (Josh) Jacobs, (Davante) Adams, Renfrow – it’s a collective unit. To beat a team like that, you have to have guys who know how to make plays. I thought our DBs did an amazing job of getting churn.

Credit Minkah Fitzpatrick too. Security had an interception and forced Carr into Heyward in one of her bags.

Practiced what they preached: On Monday, some of the Steelers said the focus of the week was late-game execution, because that had been a big issue against the Raiders in recent games.

Las Vegas/Oakland won six of eight against the Steelers in Saturday’s game. All six of those wins were one-score games at one point in the fourth quarter. Five of them finished with a differential of seven points or less.

In this game, the Steelers were the better team in the end. The Steelers scored 10 points in the fourth quarter on offense. Meanwhile, on defense, they forced two punts and got a third interception.

The Steelers have allowed just one touchdown in the fourth quarter since the bye.

Minimizing the damage: The Steelers did a good job containing the Raiders’ stars.

Carr was held to a 42.2 passer rating on Saturday night. In his first three games against the Steelers, that number was 113.9. Adams, an All-Pro, had just two catches for 15 yards on nine targets. Jacobs, the NFL leader at the start of the week, had just 44 yards on 19 carries.

Waller had a huge reception for 34 yards. He and Renfrow combined for eight receptions and 100 yards. But that wasn’t enough to make up for the other Las Vegas stars’ nights off.

And on defense, Pro Bowler Maxx Crosby had four tackles. But none were behind the line of scrimmage and he had no sacks.


Related:

• Steelers outrun Raiders in final minute on Immaculate Reception 50th Anniversary weekend
• Minus ‘the big man’, Steelers retire Franco Harris’ uniform number in emotional ceremony
• Steelers’ Christmas Eve game is second-coldest home game in franchise history
• From ‘Frank!’ cadence of wearing ’32’ jerseys, Steelers players love to honor Harris with the win
• Kenny Pickett proving he has a bit of Big Ben as he leads the Steelers’ late-game heroics


Pickett to Pickens: The Steelers offense was doing nothing until their final victory.

But on the final offensive possession, much of the miss ended up hitting just in time. Pickett drove a 10-play, 76-yard drive leading to the Steelers’ first touchdown of the night as he hit George Pickens for a 14-yard scoring reception.

“We were moving the ball well and then we stopped in the red zone,” Pickett said. “I thought we were behind the chains. We had some penalty issues. I want to watch the tape and see where we were doing in terms of the assignment, but we were moving along well and then we got there and kind of stalled. In the end it worked out. All that matters is that we have the ‘W.’ But there are definitely things we need to improve.”

Pickett was 7-of-9 on that drive for 75 yards passing. He took the other yard on a fourth-and-1 quarterback drive.

Top rating for fans: The Steelers announced a paid crowd of over 64,000. It might have been two-thirds of that in actual attendance.

But the crowd that was there was as loud as possible, dedicated, enthusiastic and engaged throughout the competition. This was despite the cold conditions and the Steelers’ frequent moments of disappointment and loss of momentum.

A standing ovation for the true fanatics of this fanbase who stayed until the end in those brutal conditions on Christmas Eve.

“When I was on the sidelines, I gave them little hearts,” Maulet said, making a heart symbol over his chest. “There’s no way I would be out there. For them to be there supporting us in this cold means a lot.”

Maulet had one of the Steelers’ three interceptions on the night.

disclosure of complaints

unit killers: The Steelers had some brutal third-down attempts in the first half.

On the Steelers’ opening drive, Pickett followed up two throwaway passes with a checkdown to Zach Gentry, who barely made it back to the line of scrimmage on a third-and-10.

On the team’s second drive, a play of third and 2 throws by Jaylen Warren lost 2 yards. Chris Boswell ended up missing a 43-yard field goal.

And on the Steelers’ third and final drive of the half, the club had the ball at the Las Vegas 26 when a Pickett’s pass went out of Pat Freiermuth’s hands for incompleteness. At least this time, Boswell made the 44-yard field goal.

Where the Raiders excelled on third downs in the first half, the Steelers sucked in that department on (to borrow Tomlinism) “heavy situations.”

nothing changed: The third quarter didn’t start out much better. The opening drive of the third quarter ended with an interception by Vegas linebacker Denzel Perryman.

But the next trip ended even more maddeningly.

On a Vegas 33 second-and-3, the Steelers called a timeout to avoid a delay of game penalty that would have cost them 5 yards. But coming out of timeout, Najee Harris lost 2 yards on a transfer anyway.

On third down, the Steelers threw the ball (stop me if you’ve heard this before) before the sticks to Harris for a meager 1-yard gain. Then Boswell missed another field goal, this one from 52 yards.

no momentum: The Steelers offense did a poor job of maintaining momentum after turnovers. The aforementioned run wasted an Arthur Maulet interception.

Choosing Maulet could have been a huge blow. Came in the first Vegas snap after Perryman’s pick. But Matt Canada’s offense wasted any energy provided by the defense.

Likewise, on the next series, the Steelers went three and out of their own 29 without gaining a yard after Fitzpatrick’s interception.

However, a Festivus miracle interceded and the Steelers were able to steal the game late in the fourth quarter.

Tim Benz is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. You can reach Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via twitter🇧🇷 All tweets can be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless otherwise specified.

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