Mike Tomlin used the word “mojo” as a catchall of sorts when trying to describe what the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ offense was missing during the first two weeks of the season.
Here are a few others Pittsburgh’s longtime coach could have substituted: Confidence. Rhythm. Swagger. Creativity. Coherent play-calling. (OK, that last one’s three words).
For six plays in the third quarter of Sunday’s 23-18 victory over Las Vegas, it all returned — even the play-calling, maybe especially the play-calling — offering a glimpse of what the Steelers (2-1) hope can become a regular occurrence over the next three-plus months.
In the span of 3:19, Kenny Pickett and company covered 81 yards in a half-dozen snaps. All of them produced positive yardage. Most of them produced first downs, the last technically coming on a 13-yard touchdown pass from Pickett to tight end Pat Freiermuth that gave the Steelers a 16-point lead and was executed so perfectly rookie tight end Darnell Washington — running an underneath route — raised his hands in celebration when Pickett’s pass was only halfway to Freiermuth’s awaiting hands in the back corner of the end zone.
“There were a lot of different things in that drive that were really positive,” Pickett said after throwing multiple touchdown passes in the same game for the first time in his career. “I actually think that’s a positive we could take away.”
On first down at the Pittsburgh 19, Pickett lined up in the shotgun, faked a handoff then found George Pickens in stride for 17 yards. Jaylen Warren churned for 4 yards then caught a well-designed delayed screen that turned into a 16-yard gain.
Pickett connected with Freiermuth — an afterthought during the first two weeks — over the middle for 14. Najee Harris found a crease and darted 17 yards. Pickett then followed by rolling to his left and lobbing a pass to a wide-open Freiermuth.
For an offense that entered the game with the fewest first downs in the NFL, for an offensive coordinator that had fans chanting for his dismissal during a game the Steelers were actually winning, for a defense that has a perpetually disruptive force in outside linebacker T.J. Watt, those six plays provided breathing room and a chance to exhale, a rarity for most of the past two-plus seasons.
“There are opportunities for growth obviously, but I was really proud of the efforts and the playmaking,” Tomlin said. “We did what we needed to do to secure a victory. It’s still very early stages of the year.”
Now comes the hard part: making it look that fluid on a consistent basis. The Steelers have scored 20-plus points in three straight games just once since Canada replaced Randy Fichtner as offensive coordinator in 2021.
The victory over the Raiders provided a welcome chance to exhale. Now Pittsburgh heads into the meat of its schedule hoping what happened in Vegas doesn’t stay there.
Every single thing Watt does. The perennial All-Pro already has six sacks through three games and even when he doesn’t get to the quarterback, he’s a game-wrecker. Twice he forced Raiders quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo into releasing the ball before he wanted, leading directly to Levi Wallace interceptions.
Week in, week out, Watt is a force regardless of how opponents are trying to defend him. Maybe old brother turned hype man J.J. Watt was right when he called the youngest of the three Watt brothers “the best defensive player on the planet.”
Charter planes. Pittsburgh’s flight home from Las Vegas made an unexpected stop in Kansas City early Monday morning when the plane had an issue that needed to be addressed on the ground. The club eventually switched planes, though, much to defensive end Cam Heyward’s chagrin, not one owned by Taylor Swift.
Rookie defensive tackle Keeanu Benton got his first career sack on Sunday and he, defensive tackle Montravius Adams and second-year defensive end DeMarvin Leal were noticeable all night while holding the Raiders to 69 yards rushing.
Canada’s opening play-calling script again produced next to nothing. Three of the first four drives ended in punts, the lone exception coming on Calvin Austin III’s 72-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Things improved as the game wore on, but the first-half issues need to be sorted out.
The Steelers made it out of Sin City relatively healthy. Cornerback Desmond King, signed as a free agent on the eve of the regular season, was active and handled some of the kick return duties while Gunner Olszewski recovered from a concussion.
1 — The number of players in NFL history with six sacks and a defensive touchdown through their team’s first three games of a season. That list didn’t exist until Watt reached six sacks on the season on Sunday night.
Pittsburgh travels to Houston (1-2) next Sunday looking for its sixth straight road win going back to last season.
Reporting by The Associated Press.
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