The Pittsburgh Steelers will play tonight with heavy hearts, no doubt. This one is going to be something more than just a football game as they look to honor the memory and the legacy of Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, who passed away suddenly earlier this week as the team prepared to retire his jersey number and commemorate his iconic Immaculate Reception 50 years ago.
As you might have noticed, it has become impossible to talk about this week as being just a football game, but there will still be plenty of blocking and tackling. The Steelers did a better job of those things last week against the Carolina Panthers, but will have to continue that today against the Las Vegas Raiders.
Set to play in sub-freezing temperatures, this could be a game in which both teams focus their efforts on running the ball, and whoever does so more successfully while protecting the football will more likely than not be the one who comes away with a win.
Raiders running back Josh Jacobs has been a workhorse over the past month and a half, recording 153 rushing attempts in just the past six games, putting up 752 yards in that time with five touchdowns, plus another 191 receiving yards.
The Steelers’ front seven is going to have to be committed to slowing him down the way they were able to keep Carolina’s run game in check, but that’s going to have to come with the help of the offense. Pittsburgh scored touchdowns on their first two drives of the game, and that limited how much the Panthers were willing to dedicate to running the ball.
Quarterback Kenny Pickett returns after missing one game. He had been very good recently at protecting the football (he hasn’t thrown an interception in his last 129 pass attempts), and has successfully extended drives, but their next step in their evolution is finishing more drives in the end zone.
The run game has been the path of least resistance for them once they get into the red zone. Both Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren have had success there recently, and even Benny Snell Jr. performed admirably while the top two backs dealt with injuries weeks ago.
The tight ends on both sides of the coin could be critical as well, with Darren Waller being a big-time threat, particularly in the red zone, for Las Vegas. The Steelers’ Pat Freiermuth was held without a target last week (though they didn’t throw the ball much in the first place, but should be feeling better after grappling with a foot injury.
With T.J. Watt presumably as healthy as he’s going to be for the rest of the year, it certainly wouldn’t feel out of place for him to deliver a timely big defensive play. Maybe not one that you’re going to give a name to, but whatever brings home a win.