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Perspective Of An Average Steelers Fan: One For Franco

GAME PRELUDE

The runup to the Christmas Eve game against the Raiders was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception. Instead, it transformed into a celebration of life. The Steelers announced the retirement of number 32. The number worn by Franco Harris, who as a rookie made the catch and touchdown is universally considered among the greatest, if not the greatest football plays of all time.

With a full schedule, Franco was vibrant and full of life on Tuesday. Overnight he was gone. But not the memories and recollections of teammates, coaches, opponents, and all the many fans he touched with his sincerity and compassion.

A frigid arctic blast brought historically cold weather. Driving to Pittsburgh from Maryland, the windshield cleaning fluid froze. I had to stop every 30 miles to clean off my windshield. But I was not going to miss this game. But this game for Franco and Kenny Pickett returning after missing time with a concussion.

The Steelers showed what this game was about.

STEELERS OFFENSE

The Steelers’ offense possessed the ball for 15:29 in the first half. But came away with only three points. Just three drives, a punt, missed field goal, and finally the field goal to make it 7-3.

Offense Punts then Squanders a Scoring Opportunity

The Steelers get the ball after Las Vegas opens the game with a touchdown. Najee Harris loses a yard going up the middle on the very first play. Kenny Pickett completes a seven-yard pass to Steven Sims. Then passes to Diontae Johnson for 11 yards and a first down. But Pickett throws two incompletions. On third and 10, a very short pass to Zach Gentry for one yard. Why pass so short on third and long? The Steelers punt from their own 43 still down 7-0.

Steelers start at the 25 again after a Raiders punt. This time, Najee gained 14 yards on first down. On second and eight, Diontae converts another first down with a 15-yard catch running out of bounds at the Raiders’ 44-yard line. Diontae gains 13 on second and 10. Pickett scrambled for six to the 25-yard line. Jaylen Warren up the middle for two and a third and two. Pittsburgh knocking on the scoring door. But then they ran a toss to Warren around the left end that lost two yards. Chris Boswell misses a 43-yard that hooks left. From my vantage point in the opposite endzone, it looked good. But must have just veered off course. A squandered scoring opportunity. Score still 7-0.

Long Drive for Three

The Steelers’ last first-half drive began with 9:39 to play at their own 12. Pickett to Pat Freiermuth eight yards is a nice start. Najee gets the first down and more with an eight-yard run off right tackle. Raiders stopped Najee for just one on first down. But then he runs for seven. On third and two, Pickett to George Pickens for eight. Pittsburgh well out of the hole. The Steelers threw a one-two punch. Najee for four yards. Then Warren for 13. On first down, Warren runs right for four. Then he ran left for five more. On third and one, Derek Watt stopped for no gain. Pickett sneaks on fourth down. The pile pushes forward two yards. Kenny throws the ball away on first down. He’s done this several times. Coached not to force the ball. Good progress. On third and eight, the pass bounces off Freiermuth’s hands for what should be a first down. Boswell lines up for a 44-yard attempt. Normally, the crowd is nervous as the ball sails left. But it was good, and the score was 7-3 with 1:53 to play.

A 15-play 62-yard drive lasting 7:50. A long drive for three.

The Raiders matched the field goal. But the Steelers didn’t have another opportunity in the first half. As the kickoff return closes out the last five seconds. Steelers down 10-3.

Forget the Offensive Third Quarter, Remember the Fourth

The Steelers looked like they were going to lose in the third quarter. But then came back in the fourth to restore order.

An Offensive Quarter to Forget

The Steelers started well with Pat Freiermuth gaining ten yards to 35 on a Pickett pass. Pickett completes another, but Freiermuth began blocking too soon on the screen resulting in pass interference. The ball is back at the 25 and it is not first and 20. Pickett back to Freiermuth for 15 yards on second down. Then a deep pass to Pickens who makes another picturesque sideline grab for 25 yards including some after the catch. That will be the Steelers’ longest gain of the game. On second and 11 at the Raiders 36, Pickett passes to Denzel Perryman. Only problem, Perryman wearing the wrong uniform.

Fortunately, the defense intercepts on the very next play. The Steelers’ offense was back in business at their own 44. The Raiders blew up a screen pass to Najee for a six-yard loss. Pickens gets some yards back. Then on third and eight, Pickett to Diontae for another first down into Raider territory. Najee spins out of a tackle and runs for seven.

Afterward, the Steelers called a timeout to prevent the play clock running out. That gave the Raiders time to reorganize themselves. Najee stopped for two-yard loss. Then he only gains one-yard catch on third and five. Boswell sent out to attempt a 52-yard field goal. Not sure Mike Tomlin’s reasoning on a freezing blustery day. The football is hard as a rock. Sure enough, Boswell hooks the ball to the left. Never close.

The defense gets the ball back a second time in the third quarter. Diontae drops the first pass. Kenny throws away the second. Then on third down, the Raiders knocked down his third pass. Steelers punt and the fans in the stands are restless.

An Offensive Quarter to Remember

A poor Raiders punt goes out of bounds at the Steelers’ 45-yard line at the start of the fourth quarter. Najee only gets one of first down. Then, Pickett passes to Najee who hurdles a defender for 17 yards.

Ball at Raiders 37. Kevin Dotson’s holding penalty takes the ball back to the 47. On first and 20, Diontae gains 11. Then Harris goes up the middle for five yards creating a reasonable third and five. Pickett passes left to Warren for seven. Pickett incomplete to Warren. But Perryman, who intercepted an earlier pass, got hurt on the play. On third and nine, a short pass to Pickens for just two. Impatient fans want the Steelers to go for it. Instead, a patient Mike Tomlin sends Boswell out who is one for three so far. Boswell responds with a 40-yard field goal to make it 10-6.

The Steelers got the ball back still down 10-6 with 5:56 to play. Najee gains eight yards on two plays. But Raiders bat down Pickett’s pass on third down. The Steelers punted with 4:40 to play.

A Final Scoring Drive

The defense does their part. Steelers get ball at their 24 with 2:55 to play in the game. The Steelers need a touchdown, and it rests on Kenny Pickett’s shoulders to move this team. Pass to Najee for six. Then to Freiermuth for 17. The two-minute warning and the Steelers near midfield at their 47. Completion to Freiermuth for ten yards. But the NFL wants to review it. What’s better for the game? A play like the immaculate reception or officials conducting meetings on the field while someone in some other city reviews a play clip by clip to confirm the original call.

Play continues but the excitement has worn off during the long time standing still. But on second down, Pickett connects with Najee for 19 yards who breaks multiple tackles. Pickett back to Najee for five and Steelers in red zone at the 19 with 1:05 to play. Najee dropped for a two-yard loss. And now another review by the NFL. The replay official reverses the pass completion ruling. So, instead of third and seven, it is third and five. Freiermuth gains four and Steelers take their second timeout with 55 seconds to play.

Pickett sneaks for the first down. Steelers take their final timeout with 50 seconds to go. Pickett fires the ball to George Pickens down the middle in the end zone. Touchdown! Boswell kicks the point after, and it is 13-10 with 46 seconds to play.

STEELERS DEFENSE

The Steelers’ defense gave up a long opening touchdown drive. But then shut the door on the Raiders.

Defense Runover in Opening Drive

The Raiders ran over the Steelers in the opening series. Starting from their 28, Josh Jacobs ran three straight times. On second and eight, the Raiders changed up and threw left to Foster Moreau for ten yards just inside Steelers territory at the 49. Back to Jacobs for 11 yards. We didn’t know it at the time but that was his longest gain of the game. Robert Spillane stopped Brandon Bolden for no gain. Then Derek Carr scrambles for nine yards. Then keep for the first down on third and one. Steelers reeling as they are pushed off the line of scrimmage. Cam Heyward sacks Carr to set up third and 16. But Carr throws to Ameer Abdullah who weaves his way through the defense for a first down.

Now at the 17, just give up three yards to set up third seven at the 14-yard line. Carr passes to the right and I thought Cam Sutton knocked the ball away. But Hunter Renfrow caught it and with a sidestep catches Tre Norwood off balance and goes in for the score.

Defense Holds Raiders to Three More

The Raiders got the ball pack at the 18 after a Steelers punt. Darren Waller catches a pass for 11 yards. But that is it. Larry Ogunjobi drops Jacobs for a three-yard loss. Carr throws to Jacobs. But Montravius Adams tackles him giving up six yards. On third and four, Cam Heyward, already with a sack, deflects the pass. Raiders punt.

The defense trots back onto the field for a third time after Boswell’s missed field goal in the second quarter. The Raiders started out well again with a 12-yard pass to Davante Adams to the 45-yard line. That will be his last catch of the game. Heyward and Spillane combine to tackle Jacobs four yards behind the line of scrimmage. Carr throws incomplete. On third and 14, he sees an opening up the middle and takes off. Spillane limits him to four yards forcing a punt from the Raiders 45.

The Steelers scored 7-3. The Raiders started the drive with 1:49 left in the half. Moreau runs for nine on first down. Jacobs runs for 10 on the next play. Just 42 seconds left, and Raiders go to the air. Carr throws to incompletions. On third down, Carr threw deep to Darren Waller for 34 yards. Minkah Fitzpatrick tackles him, but Tre Norwood is injured on the play and is assisted off the field to the locker room.  Carr throws twice to Devante Adams.  Cam Sutton defends the first pass. Carr overthrows the second. Carr throws another incompletion toward the end zone. This time targeting Waller.  Defense held the Raiders to a 40-yard field goal to make it 10-3 to end the half.

Two third Quarter Interceptions

The Raiders intercept Kenny Pickett on the opening drive of the second half. Defense comes onto the field at their own 47-yard line. On first down, Carr throws over the middle for Moreau. But Arthur Maulet tips the ball and finally manages to secure it and returns the interception 12 yards. Just like that the Steelers reverse fortunes.

The Steelers failed to capitalize and missed another field goal. Raiders have the ball at their own 42. A field goal will make it a two-score lead. Carr targets Renfrow twice. First for eight yards. And then for nine yards with T.J. Watt tackling him. A Waller false start pushes the ball back from the 41 to the 46-yard line. Newly promoted Elijah Riley and Tyson Alualu limit Jacobs to three yards. On second and 12, Minkah intercepts and wisely goes to the ground.

Defense Forces Three Punts Then Ices the Game

Pittsburgh failed to capitalize on another takeaway going three and out instead. Watt drops Jacobs for a three-yard loss. Jacobs gets four back. And Carr completes an 11-yard pass to Hunter Renfrow. On first down, Jacobs runs for 36 yards to the 23. Where is the defense? Oh, Renfrow grabbed the defender by the facemask. No play. Instead, 15-yard penalty back to the Raider 26. That’s a 51-yard swing in territory.  Carr targets standout tight end Darren Waller. Devin Bush tackles him for just four yards. Then Bush and Levi Wallace tackled Waller after nine yards. On third and 12, Alex Highsmith sacks Carr. Raiders punt on the first play of the fourth quarter.

The Steelers tightened the game to 10-6. The Raiders start on their 29. Raiders get a first down on a seven-yard pass to Mack Hollins. On second and eight, Minkah blitzes and Cam Heyward is there to sack Carr. On third and 18, Minkah and Riley combine to tackle Abdullah after ten yards to force a punt with 6:06 to play.

The Steelers offense stalls and punts too. The defense must hold the Raiders to stay in the game. The Raiders run their workhorse Jacobs. He gained five but was tackled by Heyward and Ogunjobi. Jacobs runs again. But into a wall named Cam Heyward for no gain. Carr targets Devante Adams but the pass is incomplete. Another punt with 3:02 left keeps the Steelers in the game.

Steelers score go-ahead touchdown. Defense back on the field with 43 seconds to defend a slim 13-10 lead. Levi Wallace defends a Carr pass intended for Davante Adams. On second and ten, Carr throws for Renfrow down the middle. Cam Sutton launches himself and intercepts the ball from the receivers waiting hands. Game over.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Special teams are an underappreciated facet of the game where one big play can shift momentum or even decide the game-winner.

I break special teams into three phases: Kickoffs, punting, and field goals including extra point attempts. Here is an overview of the special teams play during the game:

KICKOFFS

Chris Boswell kicked off four times. The plan seemed to be kick short to hold them behind the 25. Or perhaps they don’t want Boswell to reinjure his groin kicking in such cold weather. The opening kickoff returned 12 yards to the 28-yard line. Boswell kicked a touchback following the first field goal. His third kick returned 23 yards with Elijah Riley and Marcus Allen tackling the returner.  The final kick just 51 yards and returned to the 29 with Marcus Allen injuring himself on the tackle.

Daniel Carlson kicked off three times. He kicked two touchbacks. At the end of the first half, he pooched a kick that Benny Snell returned 15 yards as time ran out.

The Steelers avoided costly penalties. The Raiders averaged less than 17 yards a return, but the short kicks gave the Raiders an edge on the starting position after kickoffs. Teams seem to be avoiding giving Sims a chance to return the ball.

THE STATS

Kickoffs KOs RTN TB OB IN25 Pen Start Avg
Chris Boswell 4 3 1 0 0 0 LVR 28
Daniel Carlson 3 1 2 0 0 0 PGH 25

 

Kickoff Returns KR Yds AVG Long Pen TD
Benny Snell 1 15 15.0 15 0 0
Ameer Abdullah 3 50 16.7 23 0 0

 

Advantage Raiders.

PUNTING

Pressley Harvin punted three times. James Pierre downed the first 39-yard punt at the 18. Harvin launched a 55-yarder from his own 29. The Raiders returned it 13 yards before long snapper Christian Kuntz tackled the returner. But he reversed the field giving the Raiders starting position at their 29. His last punt went out of bounds at the Vegas 24 after sailing 46 yards. Good night punting.

AJ Cole punted five times, three in the fourth quarter. His first 43-yarder went out of bounds at the 25. I thought the officials gave him a generous mark as it seemed like it shanked. Sims fair caught the second at the 12 yard-line. Cole did badly hook left out of bounds for just 29 yards at the 45 in the fourth quarter. The Steelers capitalized on the favorable field position to kick a field goal. Steven Sims returned the third nine yards just ahead of the 20. Then Sims fair caught his final punt at the 24.

THE STATS

Punting Punts AVG Net TB OB/D IN20 Pen Long
Pressley Harvin 3 46.7 42.3 0 2 1 0 55
AJ Cole III 5 41.6 39.8 0 2 1 0 47

 

Punt Returns PR Yds AVG FC Pen Long TD
Stephen Sims 1 9 9.0 2 0 9 0
Hunter Renfrow 1 13 13.0 0 0 13 0

 

Advantage Steelers

FIELD GOALS and EXTRA POINTS

Boswell only two of four field goal attempts. It was a freezing blustery day but missing a 43-yard attempt that sailed left is not the norm. He did hit a 44-yarder but missed on an inadvisable 52-yard attempt. Boswell stayed true in the fourth quarter hitting from 40 yards and had no trouble with the PAT.

Daniel Carlson made both his scoring kicks. The point after the opening drive touchdown. And a 40-yard field goal near the end of the first half.

THE STATS

FGs and PATs XPM XPA FGM FGA Long 2PTM 2PTA
Chris Boswell 1 1 2 4 44 0 0
Daniel Carlson 1 1 1 1 40 0 0

 

Advantage Raiders

DAVE BRYAN’S VICTORY PUNCH LIST

Dave Bryan provided five keys for a Steelers victory. Here is how the Steelers performed them:

  1. Keep Jacobs under 93 rushing and 142 total yards. The Steelers’ defense shut Jacobs down. Just 44 rushing and 50 total yards. Mission Accomplished.
  2. No double explosive plays or touchdowns for Davante Adams. Two catches for 15 yards. Adam’s longest was just 12 yards.  Mission Accomplished.
  3. Avoid Maxx Crosby forcing fumbles. Crosby hit Kenny Pickett four times. But had no sacks and the Steelers never fumbled the ball. An errant Pickett throw the only turnover. Mission Accomplished.
  4. Najee outshines Jacobs. Najee gained 95 total yards compared to 50 for Jacobs. Mission Accomplished.
  5. Big special team play leading to a Steelers touchdown. No big returns or takeaways. Chris Boswell missed two field goals. Mission Failure.

The Steelers accomplished four of the five keys to victory. Mike Tomlin must have read Dave Bryan’s Five Keys to Victory article to make last minute adjustments. Nice job!

YOUR HOT TAKES DURING THE GAME

Thank you, Ross McCorkle, for keeping us posted on the game’s first and second-half Live Update and Discussion Threads. Steelers Depot respondents contributed  693 first half comments.  We must have been shopping for last-minute Christmas presents or gift wrapping for such a low first-half number. Respondents added  1171 more second half comments.  Here are the “best comments” of the game. I don’t know the algorithm used by Disqus but here is how they stacked it up:

Alex Kozora greeted us all onto the live thread prior to kickoff. “Appreciate you all being here tonight!”

Matt Manzo reminded everyone who this game was for. “Do it for Franco!!!!!”

A two-yard loss on third and two frustrated many in a lackluster first half. Chris92021 exclaimed “That 3rd and 2 toss sweep is another indictment on Canada. What a terrible play call.”

The Steelers started the second half down 10-3.

GrumpyHighlander delivered the best comment of the game. Near the end of game when Kenny Pickett threw the go-ahead touchdown pass. “This is why I think Kenny has a shot. Throws a bad pick. He’s under pressure all game. He still has the poise to do that in the end. GET THIS KID A REAL OC.”

During the Steelers drive, Steel City Slim calling the play on many people’s minds: “Now would be a good time to draw one up for George Pickens. All he does is catch everything even when he’s covered 🤷🏾‍♂️”

And we also called out the hypocrisy of the NFL. Monkey’s Uncle noted, Oh the irony: they just suspended Jets WR coach for gambling on other sports, but we’ve seen about 30 gambling commercials during this game.As an average fan, I would add the NFL’s desire to play 18-game regular seasons while lamenting all the injuries.  If the NFL went back to 16 games you’d have over a 5% reduction in injuries.

FranchisePunter knew what the Steelers needed to do near the end. “Two turnovers and held them to 10 points. D has done its job. It’s time for the O to do theirs and go win this one.” The defense added a third takeaway to seal it.

Peter-Petersen greeted us early in the half with “Merry Christmas to everyone out there.” And at the end put into words what we witnessed: “Kenny was clutch at the end of the day”

Ian H. concluded, “Cam Heyward sets it off, Connor Heyward puts it away. Somehow there is inherent beauty in that… Merry Christmas, Steeler Nation. Here we go…”

CONCLUSIONS

This game was for Franco. It is pleasing for this old average Steelers fan to see the legacy passed from one generation of Steelers to another.

Cam Heyward demonstrated it by his entrance onto the field and moreover his in-game performance.

Kenny Pickett summed it up.

I was so thankful to attend the game. I drove home to Maryland after the game. Didn’t get home until the wee hours. I slept in on Christmas Day. When I woke up, had to think for a second. Was I really in Pittsburgh last night witnessing a come-behind victory and helping celebrate the life of Franco Harris or was it just a dream?

Here We Go.

YOUR MUSIC SELECTION

I always like to offer a music selection. It’s been many years in coming. Just keep the Steeler machinery humming. In honor of Franco, the 1978 Steelers Fight Song by Jimmy Pol.

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