Labriola On

Labriola on the win over the Raiders

Back to work.

What else to say about a night that started with the beleaguered offense beginning the game with back-to-back three-and-outs. When the fourth quarter began with them holding a 23-7 lead and was screaming for one of the units to step forward and end the suspense, the offense went three-and-out twice and burned only 2:47 off the game clock while the defense allowed an 11-play, 66-yard drive for a touchdown followed by a 9-play, 33-yard drive for a field goal and helped keep both drives alive with penalties.

Actually there is something else to say about the Steelers' first-ever game in Las Vegas and it's that it was a victory, and even though the 23-18 final was unnecessarily stressful of their own making, well, the outcome really was the whole point of this business trip.

That they did enough correct in all three phases to defeat the Raiders to improve their record to 2-1 – and maybe as a testament to the wackiness that is an NFL regular season – the outcome put them in first place in the AFC North. Temporarily, most likely, but everybody who sat through every snap of the season-opener against the 49ers a fortnight ago and thought this was even remotely possible, please raise your right hand … and all of you with your hand in the air, nuh-uh, not buying it.

But 2-1 is their reality.

As the Thursday-Sunday slate of games concluded, the Steelers' 2-1 would be better than the Ravens' 2-1 because Baltimore's lone loss was to a conference opponent while Pittsburgh's was not; and the Steelers' 2-1 would be better than Cleveland's 2-1 because of a victory in a head-to-head matchup; and the Bengals will take an 0-2 record and a gimpy franchise quarterback into their Week 3 game, on Monday night vs. the Rams.

What's also their reality is it wouldn't require a deep dive into the minutiae of their performance in this victory to expose the issues that against a different opponent during a different stage of the season would surely send them down to defeat.

Here's just one example:

Their run defense was improved, which was a positive, with the Raiders throwing the NFL's 2022 leading rusher (Josh Jacobs) at them 17 times for 62 yards, and with none of the breakdowns that allowed San Francisco's Christian McCaffrey to snap off a 65-yard run and Cleveland's Jerome Ford to get loose for 69. But on the other hand, Davante Adams (13 catches for 172 yards and a 32-yard touchdown) and Jacoby Meyer (7 catches for 85 yards) went a long way toward rendering that moot.

And there are other examples of their inadequacies, but progress could be identified when other players within the unit came through with a big play.

On defense, Levi Wallace spent much of the evening chasing Adams or Meyer around the floor of Allegiant Stadium, but he contributed two interceptions, including one in the final seconds to drive the stake through the Raiders' hopes. Patrick Peterson got an interception that was the 35th of his career. There was an instance when Meyer streaked through the Steelers zone defense and was all alone behind the secondary but Keeanu Benton shot into the backfield and sacked Jimmy Garoppolo before he had a chance to realize what was happening.

On offense, the bad was there simply wasn't enough damage done to a defense that was allowing its opponents to complete 81.7 percent of their passes and during the same two-game span they were allowing 4.9 yards per rushing attempt. In two whole games, the Raiders defense had "forced" two opponents to punt a combined three times but it pitched four three-and-outs alone against the Steelers.

But this time, their quarterback provided some mitigation. Kenny Pickett stood in and paid the price to make some big throws and executed others on the move; the offensive line opened enough holes for 105 yards rushing; Jaylen Warren showed what he learned in all those backs-on-backers drills in Latrobe when he stepped up and made the block that allowed the 72-yard touchdown to Calvin Austin III to have a chance to happen; and Allen Robinson, George Pickens, and Pat Freiermuth won individual matchups to make catches at significant moments.

"Man, a really good, tough, hard-fought victory in all three phases," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "It's good to stack victories. We've got to make winning a habitual thing. Just to stack winning performance on top of winning performance is significant. It's also our first opportunity to play on the road in a hostile environment, this being (the Raiders') home opener, we had to manage that component of the game. There are opportunities for growth, obviously, but I'm really proud of the efforts and the playmaking."

We pause now to highlight a couple of the game's critical moments and how each was described on the NBC broadcast of what's a showcase for the network during each week of the NFL season.

Those two incidences were a roughing the passer penalty on Minkah Fitzpatrick on a sack that turned what would have been a third-and-16 from the Pittsburgh 24-yard line into a first-and-goal at the 9-yard line, and a 6-yard completion to Allen Robinson that converted a third-and-2 with 2:12 remaining and allowed the offense to stay on the field until the punting unit came on with 23 seconds to play.

• Former NFL referee Terry McAuley now serves as the rules analyst on NBC's Sunday Night Football broadcasts, and he disagreed with the penalty on Fitzpatrick by explaining the rule requires the offending player to make "forcible contact" with his helmet during the tackle while he used replays to show the contact was "only a glancing blow and did not rise to the level" of a roughness call. And this call was from the same crew that had allowed the Raiders' pass rush to deliver some shots to Pickett's head during the first half without consequence.

• On the pass play to Robinson, analyst Cris Collinsworth, never to be accused of being soft on the Steelers after 8 seasons worth of home-and-homes as a Bengals wide receiver during the player-safety-initiative-less 1980s, offered his assessment of the play. Collinsworth made the point that based on what the Steelers had showed in previous situations from the same formation, the Raiders would have been expecting a running play and that's how the unit reacted at the snap. But the Steelers took advantage of that by getting Pickett on the move to the other side of the field where he had an easy and clean lane to get the ball to Robinson, who secured the catch and then got down in-bounds to keep the clock running. "That was a good call by (offensive coordinator) Matt Canada."

In the final analysis, the beauty or the ugliness of the Steelers' third performance of a 17-game season is up to the beholder, because after all, it's a complete guessing game to offer anything but opinion and speculation about what a future that's multiple months away ultimately will hold.

The Steelers have chosen to spend their days during that period working on their issues and keeping their mouths shut. And while the work has resulted in incremental improvement in every phase of their performance each week, they still have issues. But so does every team in their division or on their schedule. What's encouraging about these Steelers is they seem to have accepted the process of doing the work to improve upon theirs.

"We did what we needed to do, (which was) secure victory," said Tomlin. "Still very early stages of the year. We've got a lot to learn. We've got a lot to teach. But it's good to do so with the victory."

Indeed it is. Back to work.