Positional Grades: Steelers vs. Raiders

It was a Christmas Eve Miracle — sort of — for the Pittsburgh Steelers Saturday night at Acrisure Stadium.

On a night in which the Steelers honored the late, great Franco Harris with a jersey retirement just one day after the 50th Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception against the then-Oakland Raiders on Dec. 23, 1972, the Steelers needed a thrilling late-game comeback against the now-Las Vegas Raiders to move to 7-8 on the season with the 13-10 win.

Rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett had a remarkable game-winning drive, finding fellow rookie George Pickens from 14 yards out on a throw down the middle for the game-winning score. The rookie quarterback was poised down the stretch, while guys like Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth made clutch plays late on a night in which head coach Mike Tomlin said it was a “grow up night” for the young offense.

Defensively, the Steelers shut down the Raiders’ high-powered offense in the frigid temperates as Cameron Heyward and Alex Highsmith got after Derek Carr, and the Steelers picked off the Raiders’ quarterback three times in the win.

Let’s get to some fun Christmas-time grades.

QB — B+

In frigid temperatues, Kenny Pickett largely had no problem slinging the football around with serious zip. Pickett was locked in early and made some key throws in the first half, doing largely what he was asked to do. The Raiders took away the Steelers’ rushing attack though, forcing Pickett to carry the load.

He responded in a big way. After shaking off an ugly interception in the second half that he threw off of his back foot and late over the middle, the rookie came up clutch. On the game-winning drive, Pickett completed 7-of-9 passes, including the strike to rookie George Pickens over the middle for the score. He was unfazed by the moment once again, securing his third game-winning drive of his young career.

The final numbers aren’t flashy (26-for-39, 244 yards, one touchdown, one interception), but he did what was asked of him in poor conditions and delivered winning football. That’s huge.

RB — B

On a cold night, the Steelers running backs dished out some serious punishment.

Najee Harris finished with 16 carries for 53 yards on the ground, outrushing former Alabama teammate Josh Jacobs on the night. Harris ran hard between the tackles, had a few impressive stiff arms and consistently had the pile falling forward overall. He wasn’t as flashy overall, but he was consistent, especially on the game-winning drive. Harris hauled in six passes for 42 yards on the night, including a key 19-yard gain on the final bank to move the chains.

Jaylen Warren was solid behind Harris as well, finishing with carries six for 23 yards on the night. Though he had just one catch for seven yards, Warren was outstanding in pass protection, holding up well against some Raiders blitzes.

WR—B+

It can be difficult to catch the football in frigid temperatures, but Diontae Johnson and George Pickens didn’t have much of a problem doing just that on Saturday night.

Aside from his game-winning catch, Pickens was impressive on the day overall, finishing with five catches for 57 yards and the touchdown. He had a big 25-yard catch along the left sideline that was key to the Steelers overall. Pickens consistently got open and made plays when targeted. He continues to get better and better.

Johnson was pretty solid as well in the poor conditions, finishing with five catches for 64 yards on seven targets, including a long of 15 on the night. Four of Johnson’s five catches went for first downs as he came up clutch on the night for the Steelers.

Outside of Pickens and Johnson, Steven Sims was the lone Steelers receiver to have a reception in the win, catching a pass on the first drive of the game that went for just seven yards.

TE — C+

Pat Freiermuth had a strong day overall as a pass catcher, leading the Steelers with seven receptions for 66 yards. He made some pivotal catches on the game-winning drive, including his diving 10-yard catch along the sideline to move the chains and keep the drive alive.

Freiermuth was strong throughout the night over the middle, which is where he’s really starting to feast for the Steelers. That said, he had a bad drop in the game as well on a play that should have extended the drive overall. As a blocker, Freiermuth had a really rough night. He couldn’t handle the assignment of dealing with Chandler Jones and Maxx Crosby throughout the night.

Freiermuth wasn’t alone in his struggles as a blocker. Zach Gentry had his hands full against Jones and Crosby and couldn’t hold up, hindering the Steelers’ rushing attack throughout the night. Jones and Crosby are game-wreckers and deserve credit, but asking the tight ends to block them — often one-on-one — was a bad game plan.

Connor Heyward made the game-sealing play of the night to close out the game in positive fashion for the Steelers tight ends, ripping off a 21-yard run on an end around to put the game way for the black and gold. All he does is make plays when given the opportunity. Football player.

OL — B+

On a night in which the Steelers had to deal with Crosby and Jones, the Steelers offensive line allowed just four quarterback hits overall. The offensive line was pretty strong overall in pass protection, giving Pickett plenty of time throughout the night to make plays downfield.

It was pretty impressive overall to see the work that left tackle Dan Moore Jr. and right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor did in pass protection on the edge, not to mention Kevin Dotson, Mason Cole and James Daniels inside.

The run game, while the pile consistently fell forward, wasn’t good enough overall. The Steelers rushed for 3.9 yards per carry on the night, but that was largely aided by the 21-yard carry from Heyward to close out the game.

DL — A

Cameron Heyward absolutely turned back the clock on the night, recording two sacks and simply dominating from start to finish. The All-Pro team captain finished with seven tackles in the win and batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage as well, making a massive impact in the win on a night in which the Steelers desperately needed it.

Along with Heyward, the Steelers defense line bounced back from a rough first drive from the Raiders to completely shut down the Las Vegas rushing attack, holding Jacobs to just 44 yards on 15 carries.

Along with Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi had a strong night against the run, finishing with four tackles and a tackle for loss, winning at the point of attack often. Montravius ​​Adams and Tyson Alualu combined for four tackles in the win overall as the Steelers made it a point to stop the run this week and succeeded at a high level.

LB — A-

Much like the defensive line, the linebackers were really good on the night, especially Robert Spillane.

Stepping in for the injured Myles Jack, who was limited Saturday night, Spillane responded by recording 12 tackles in the win. He was all over the place on Saturday night and was pivotal against the run, firing downhill with force. So, too, was Devin Bush.

Though Bush recorded just three tackles, he was physical firing downhill against blockers to help clog up lanes overall.

Outside, TJ Watt started to look like himself a bit. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year finished with three tackles, one tackle for a loss and one pass defensed in the win. He had consistent push as a pass rusher, which threw off some timing for the Raiders.

Alex Highsmith had a key sack late, and now has 12 sacks on the season. He ran a great stunt with Heyward, looping inside for the sack in a critical situation for the black and gold.

DB — A-

Holding Davante Adams to just two catches for 15 yards is a massive win for the Steelers secondary. They placed an emphasis on slowing him down, and they did a great job taking him away.

That did allow Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller to have solid nights, but overall the Steelers held Carr to just 174 passing yards in the win, picking him off three times.

Cameron Sutton broke up two passes and made the game-sealing interception on an absolutely absurd play, diving for the interception overall the middle. He was arguably the best secondary player on the night.

Levi Wallace and Minkah Fitzpatrick also broke up passes in the win, with Fitzpatrick picking off Carr in the process for his fifth interception of the season. Arthur Maulet also made a great play on his interception, catching a deflected pass to get the football right back for the Steelers one play after Pickett’s interception.

Damontae Kazee and Elijah Riley were rather solid filling in for Terrell Edmunds on the night, combining for seven tackles.

Special Teams—C+

It was a tough night to kick in frigid conditions with a swirling win, but having Chris Boswell should have been a huge boost for the Steelers.

Instead, Boswell missed two of his first three field goal attempts, including one from 52 yards. While the Steelers likely shouldn’t have trotted him out there for the 52-yard attempt, that’s something he has to convert.

In the punting game, Pressley Harvin III was solid overall in bad conditions, finishing with a 46.7-yard attempt on the night, including a long of 55 yards. Harvin dropped one inside the 20 yard line as well. Situational punting was solid overall.

Coverage was decent, too, though the Steelers allowed a 13-yard punt return from Hunter Renfrow.

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