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

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

That game was 13-7 Steelers on Dec. 23, 1972. And they looked to be in trouble until the very end.

The game between the clubs on Christmas Eve 2022 wound up being 13-10 in favor of the Steelers. Hopefully, somewhere Franco Harris was watching this one and had an appreciation for symmetry.

Mike Tomlin’s team had just one offensive drive worth remembering and many drives they’d like to forget. The defense had a terrible start but a fantastic finish.

The stadium was far emptier than it normally is, but the fans that were there were in full throat all evening. Maybe it was a lot of eggnog, or they were just in the Christmas spirit. But they stuck it out.

In the end, the Steelers ended up on the nice list more often than the naughty one, and their Christmas wish to remain alive in the playoff race and to 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 of our friends who celebrate Festivus at this time of year.

Feats of strength

Defensive turnaround: Given the circumstances surrounding Franco Harris’ jersey retirement and the Immaculate Reception anniversary, everyone was in a 1970s frame of mind. But the Steelers’ opening defensive series was anything but Steel Curtain-worthy.

The Raiders took the opening kickoff and churned 72 yards in 14 plays for a touchdown. The opening march lasted 8 minutes, 22 seconds. Derek Carr capped it off with a scoring pass to Hunter Renfrow, who kept his balance and juked Tre Norwood on his way into 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. It 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 one pass deflection.

“We gave up some yards on that first drive, but I thought we settled in, tackled better, tried to contain some of those offensive explosion 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’ve got to have guys that can make plays. I thought our DBs did an amazing job getting turnovers.”

Credit Minkah Fitzpatrick too. The safety had an interception and forced Carr into Heyward on one of his sacks.

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

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

In this game, the Steelers were the better team late. The Steelers scored 10 fourth-quarter points on offense. Meanwhile, on defense, they forced two punts and grabbed their third interception.

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

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

Carr was held to a passer rating of 42.2 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’s leading rusher entering the week, had only 44 yards on 19 carries.

Waller did have one big reception for 34 yards. He and Renfrow combined for eight catches and 100 yards. But that wasn’t enough to make up for off nights from Vegas’ other stars.

And on defense, Pro Bowler Maxx Crosby had four tackles. But none were behind the line of scrimmage, and he didn’t have any sacks.


Related:

• Steelers rally past Raiders in the final minute on the 50th anniversary weekend of Immaculate Reception
• Minus ‘the big man,’ Steelers retire Franco Harris’ uniform number in emotional ceremony
• Steelers’ Christmas Eve game the 2nd-coldest home game in franchise history
• From ‘Franco!’ cadence to wearing ’32’ jerseys, Steelers players relish honoring Harris with a win
• Kenny Pickett proving he has some Big Ben in him in leading Steelers’ late-game heroics


Pickett to Pickens: The Steelers offense was doing nothing until its final game-winning drive.

But on the final offensive possession, a lot of what was misfiring ended up clicking at just the right time. Pickett directed a 10-play, 76-yard drive leading to the first Steelers touchdown of the night as he hit George Pickens for a 14-yard scoring reception.

“We were moving the ball well and then we stalled in the red zone,” Pickett said. “I thought we got behind the chains. We had some penalty issues. I want to watch the tape and see assignment-wise how we were, but we were moving it well and then we got down there and just kind of stalled out. It came together at the end. All that matters is we got the ‘W.’ But there are definitely things we need to improve on.”

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

Full marks to the fans: The Steelers announced a paid crowd of over 64,000. It may have been two-thirds of that in actual attendance.

But the crowd that was there was as loud as they could be, dedicated, enthusiastic and engaged throughout the contest. That was despite the frigid conditions and frequent moments of disappointment and frittered momentum by the Steelers.

A standing ovation goes out to the true die-hards of this fanbase that stayed until the end in those brutal conditions on Christmas Eve.

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

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

Airing of grievances

Drive-killers: The Steelers had some brutal, drive-ending third-down attempts in the first half.

On the Steelers’ first drive, Pickett followed two throw-away passes with a scrambling checkdown to Zach Gentry that barely made it back to the line of scrimmage on a third-and-10.

On the team’s second drive, a third-and-2 pitch play to 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 off of Pat Freiermuth’s hands for an incompletion. At least this time, Boswell made the 44-yard field goal.

Where the Raiders excelled on third downs in the first half, the Steelers were terrible in that department on the (to borrow a Tomlinism) “weighty situations.”

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

But the next drive ended in even more maddening fashion.

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

On third down, the Steelers threw the ball (stop me if you’ve heard this before) short of 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 horrible job of maintaining momentum after turnovers. The sequence mentioned above wasted an interception by Arthur Maulet.

The Maulet pick could’ve been a big swing. It came on Vegas’ first snap following that Perryman pick. But Matt Canada’s offense squandered any energy the defense provided.

Similarly, on the next series, the Steelers went three-and-out from their own 29 without gaining a yard following Fitzpatrick’s interception.

Yet a Festivus miracle intervened, and the Steelers managed to steal the game late in the fourth quarter.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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