LAS VEGAS – The Steelers got the kind of game they needed from a number of people on Sunday night here at Allegiant Stadium to come away with a victory.
But perhaps nobody needed a game like that more than quarterback Kenny Pickett.
And it all changed with one pass.
After a pair of three-and-outs to open this game, Pickett dropped back to pass for the fourth time having seen his first three attempts fall incomplete.
But on third-and-7 from Pittsburgh 28, trailing 7-0, there was no better time than the present to dial something up.
The Raiders were stacking the line of scrimmage, daring the Steelers to go deep.
As the players broke the huddle, second-year receiver Calvin Austin III split wide with the feeling something good was going to happen.
"We dialed it up," said Austin. "We knew it was going to be good."
It needed to be. Remember, the Steelers had struggled mightily in the first quarter in their first two games, failing to record a first down in either. Had that happened again in this game, even the rabid Steelers fans who took over Allegiant Stadium Sunday night might have rained boos down upon them,
Instead, Austin took off for the middle of the field, blazing by cornerback Marcus Peters and safety Marcus Epps. Pickett let the ball fly and it dropped into the waiting arms of Austin some 46 yards away according to NextGen stats.
Twenty-six yards later, Austin rambled untouched into the end zone for a 72-yard score.
"It was big," said Pickett. "We needed it. They were doing a really good job of doubling George (Pickens), making it really hard to get him touches. So that leaves other guys singled up and Cal had press (coverage). He took the post (route) and it was really good."
Really, really good.
If the Steelers had to punt the ball back to the Raiders quickly, things might have turned out differently.
Instead, they tied the game at 7-7, scored the game's next 23 points and coasted to a 23-18 victory.
After that 0-3 start to the game, Pickett settled in as the Steelers continued to build on their advantage.
He was at his best in the third quarter, when he connected on 7 of 9 passes for 102 yards and a touchdown, that coming on a 13-yard toss to tight end Pat Freiermuth off play-action when Pickett began the play under center.
"I think they were expecting in that formation we were in, we would run," said left tackle Dan Moore. "We had run out of that all day. Hitting them with play-action was smart."
Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 3 game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium
The bomb to Austin was essential in loosening up the Raiders defense. The 81-yard drive that culminated with the TD pass to Freiermuth was the next step beyond that, as the Steelers hit on several chunk plays during the possession.
"I think you saw a lot of different things in that drive," said Pickett, who completed 16 of 28 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns. "A play-action strike to (Pickens). Pat over the middle. Patt off the bootleg (for the score). Some scramble drill stuff we did, hit Allen (Robinson) on the sideline.
"There were a lot of things in that drive that were really positive, so I absolutely think that's a positive we can take away."
A 235-yard game with a pair of touchdown passes might not be what some other quarterbacks put up on a regular basis, but it was what was needed in this game.
Well, that and a win.
• The defense did its job, as well. While the overall yardage numbers – the Raiders had 362 total yards – aren't all that flattering, the three interceptions, four sacks and limiting Las Vegas to four third-down conversions on 13 attempts most certainly are.
The Steelers also limited 2022 NFL rushing leader Josh Jacobs to 62 yards on 17 carries, with more than a third of that coming in the fourth quarter, when the Raiders were in hurry-up mode and the Steelers were a little more willing to trade some empty yards for time off the clock. In the first half, Jacobs had 22 yards on eight carries.
Considering the Steelers had given up two single rushes of more than 62 yards in their first two games to the 49ers' Christian McCaffery and Browns' Jerome Ford, it was a big step, as well.
"That was a point of emphasis for us," said cornerback Patrick Peterson. "We knew we were going to get another opportunity to go against a great bac. We knew they were going to feed him often and early because he didn't have the kind of game he wanted last week."
The run defense is still going to be a work in progress with so many new guys playing key roles on that side of the ball. But this was a big step. The tackling was so much better in this game, as were the overall run fits.
The Steelers also dabbled with second-year linebacker Mark Robinson on the field on some early downs, to add him to the mix in helping stop the run.
All told, from the inside linebacker group of Kwon Alexander, Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Robinson, the Steelers got 17 combined tackles, one of which was for a los, a pass defense and a quarterback hit.
The run-stopping isn't all on the inside linebackers. But they're such an integral part of it, those guys have to continue to post those kind of numbers – or better.
• Rookie defensive tackle Keeanu Benton continues to impress and is only going to continue to get better.
He recorded his first career sack in this game and just missed on another. He is extremely disruptive – and confident.
"It felt great. The first of many," said Benton of his third quarter sack of Raiders quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. "First one in a long time. Hopefully, I can get on a roll.
"I'm getting more comfortable with it. I realize how much alike it is to college, just going out there and imposing your will on the other team. I'm just getting into a groove with these guys, getting to know these guys and learning what I can and can't do on certain rushes. Let's keep it going."
Benton has been pressed into more duty with Cam Heyward out. So have Larry Ogunjobi, Montravius Adams and DeMarvin Leal. Those guys are the players who help free those inside linebackers up to make plays.
But don't get the idea that's all they're about. That group is more than just a bunch of run stuffers. Benton, for example, had 4.5 sacks in his final season at Wisconsin, largely playing nose tackle.
He's more than just a run-stuffer.
"I know what I am," Benton said. "I'm not too worried about what people think about me. I know what I'm capable of, and I've just got to keep showing up."
• Davante Adams finished this game with 13 receptions for 172 yards and two touchdowns.
If you just look at that, you'd think the Steelers had a really difficult day covering him. While that's partially true, they really forced the Raiders' offense to flow through Adams.
His 13 catches came on 20 targets. And Levi Wallace had a pair of interceptions and four pass breakups in coverage on Adams.
"You go out there each and every week knowing that you have to win your matchup," Wallace said. "Adams is a dude. He's one of the best in the league, if not the best. You know he's going to get targeted a lot, but you can't waiver. If he catches the ball, scores a touchdown, you just have to stay focused. They design their offense to get him the ball a lot. They do a good job. Today was about fighting."
Wallace and company did that. Garoppolo's passer rating when targeting Adams was 85.8. His overall rating in this game was 72.5.
Both of those are numbers with which you can live.
"We knew if we took away his first look, his feet would get a little happy," said cornerback Patrick Peterson, who had the other interception on Garoppolo. "And they did."
Garoppolo is the epitome of a quarterback who is a game manager. And for much of this game, the Steelers didn't allow him to manage the game well.
• What more can be said about T.J. Watt that hasn't already been put out there?
His six sacks through the Steelers' first three games are the most by a player in team history.
And the attention he requires from opposing teams is immense.
He also just affects the game in so many ways.
On Peterson's interception in the third quarter, Garoppolo tried to loft a ball to Jakobi Meyers because Watt was bearing down on him.
"It was a broken play. I'm honestly surprised he threw that, but I will take it," said Peterson. "I'm not complaining."
The Raiders devoted two players to Watt on nearly every pass blocking snap. And sometimes it was three.
"Anytime they're chipping as much as they were tonight, or anytime they weren't chipping, we were trying to make it our best effort to make the pass rush as hot as possible," said Watt, who is on pace for 34 sacks this season (think about that).
"I think we did a good job of keeping them under duress tonight and it helps when we have them in those obvious passing situations where we can pin our ears back."
• The Steelers are now 2-1 and in first place in the AFC North based on the tiebreakers. Watt has six sacks in the first three games.
Las Vegas edge rusher Maxx Crosby had a sack in this game and had three tackles and two quarterback hits, as well.
That means that while Watt was recording six sacks in the first three games, the trio of Nick Bosa, Myles Garrett and Crosby – all of whom are considered among the best in the business along with Watt – have combined for five tackles and one sack.
That's a heck of a gauntlet to run for Steelers offensive tackles Dan Moore Jr. and Chuks Okorafor.
"Man, the rest of the season is going to be easy," said Moore with a smile. "Know what I'm saying?"
Moore isn't saying there won't be challenges. But what he is saying is that while the Steelers will still face some good edge rushers the rest of the season – including Garrett again – it won't be like this in back-to-back-to-back weeks.
"Each one of them has their unique skill set," Moore said. "Maxx, he's really good with his hands and he has a high motor. I think he's a lot different than the last two guys we saw. His play-style is a little more unorthodox. He was a little more effective, but we still got the job done."
• The kicking game gets another gold star for the Steelers in this game.
Chris Boswell nailed three field goals, including a 57 yarder that put the Steelers up two scores early in the third quarter.
And Pressley Harvin III consistently flipped the field, averaging 53.8 yards on his six punts, three of which were downed inside the opposing 20.
The hang time on his final punt with 23 seconds remaining in the game was a thing of beauty.
Harvin took the snap with 23 seconds remaining and boomed the ball 56 yards to the Las Vegas 8. By the time return man DeAndre Carter had a chance to catch the ball, seven seconds had ticked off the clock. Then, because the ball was in the air so long, Carter was surrounded and muffed the catch.
Though he recovered the loose ball at the 15, the overall play took 11 seconds off the clock.
Harvin has a big leg. And when he's kicking in environments such as the one at Allegiant Stadium, he gets the opportunity to show it off – something that doesn't always happen in the elements at Acrisure Stadium, especially later in the season.
• Najee Harris once again broke off a chunk run in this game, going 17 yards on a play to set up Freiermuth's touchdown catch.
While the overall yardage still isn't what you might expect, the Steelers had more success on the ground in this game than they had in their first two outings.
That will continue to improve, though it is nice to see the chunk runs coming. That's four runs of 15 or more yards already this season for Harris.
When you're getting runs like that, it means the wide receivers and tight ends are doing a nice job of blocking on the second level and edges.
• Pickett was on the move more in this game than he had been in the first two games. Part of that was a way to combat the relentlessness of Crosby.
"I think we did a good job of mixing it up and moving the pocket," said Pickett. "They got a great pass rusher in (Crosby) and I didn't want to be a sitting duck back there and give him a target that he can consistently rush at and change the launch point up. There was times where I was able to extend and find some guys downfield and that was also a plus too, so there's a little bit of both."
The Steelers did a nice job of using that rollout on their final third down conversion with just over two minutes remaining. Pickett took the snap on third-and-2 and rolled to his left, getting the ball to Allen Robinson for an easy 6-yard gain and a first down that allowed them to churn more time off the clock.
Robinson only had four receptions for 24 yards, but that was a big play.
"The coverage was the coverage we were hoping, the look," Pickett said. "Allen did a great job getting open, catching the ball, getting down. He's such a trustworthy guy and puts so much time into it. Studies like I study, sees what I see. So, it's awesome to have a guy like that."
• At 2-1 after three games, the Steelers are right where they need to be.
The Ravens (2-1) surprisingly lost Sunday to the Colts, while the Browns (2-1) took care of the Titans at home. The Bengals host the Rams Monday night and at 0-2 already, a loss in that game would be huge considering they've already lost two divisional games.
That's one big reason why the fans showing up as they did for this game in Las Vegas was so big. The crowd noise was a major factor in helping the Steelers to victory.
The Raiders had to go to a silent count on offense. On their own field.
"We have great fans and Pittsburgh travels well," said Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels. "So, you deal with what you have to deal with. That is what it is. We've handled that before and we need to handle it again if it comes up."
The Raiders hadn't given up a sack in their first two games, both of which had been on the road. This was their home opener. And Steelers fans filled the building.
"Steeler Nation has been incredible, whether we're at Acrisure or we're here on the road, or hopefully next week too," said Watt, referencing the team's game next week in Houston. "I just want them all to know the importance that it has to the game. To be able to have a team on a silent count in their own stadium is pretty demoralizing, and it also helps the pass rush so much more. And I'm very appreciative for everybody that came out tonight and was loud."