With 3:37 remaining in the game and the Pittsburgh Steelers just having cut the Las Vegas Raiders lead to 23-17, Jon Gruden knew it was crunch time for his offense.
On their last possession, they were entirely committed to running time off the clock — but were only able to gain one first down and run 2:32 off the clock (plus forcing the Steelers to burn one timeout).
Now with the ball back, Gruden had a decision to make — would he pound the rock and trust his defense, despite the fact that the Raiders would finish with just 52 yards on 25 carries? Or would he trust his quarterback and get aggressive?
On first down, it was Peyton Barber up the middle for a gain of three. 40 seconds later, Derek Carr was at the line calling for the ball — but this time, instead of turning around and handing the ball off, he dropped back and looked for his main man: Darren Waller — who was running past a linebacker and had created some space.
Carr, as he had done all day, dropped the ball perfectly into that space for a huge 25-yard gain into Steelers’ territory. Next up was a 13-yard run from Barber, then a one-yard gain, a three-yard gain and a one-yard gain. Now firmly in field goal range, the Raiders ran the clock down to 24-seconds before kicker Daniel Carlson drilled his fourth field goal of the game, putting this one to bed.
The win moved the Raiders to 2-0, one of only seven teams in the league still without a loss — but even more impressive is how the Raiders did it. They’ve now beaten two playoff teams from last season — not to mention two teams who have wins over Kansas City and Buffalo on their resumes this season as well. And the best part? Neither was particularly fluky. The Raiders never trailed in the second half of this one, spending most of the time either up two scores, or up one score with the ball.
All this to say, before we get into individual accolades, it’s worth pointing out how surprisingly solid the Raiders have been in all three phases. Their special teams have been perfect, their defense has been above-average, and their offense — even without 3/5 of their offensive line (and their starting running back) to close this game — has been fantastic against two of the better defensive units in the league.
Offensive MVP: Derek Carr
When you go 28 for 37 for 382 yards and two touchdowns behind a patchwork offensive line and without a running game, this was an easy choice. The biggest play of the game was the 61-yard touchdown to Henry Ruggs on 3rd and 10 in the fourth quarter, and to say this was a good throw would be underselling it.
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) September 19, 2021
On the play, Carr backpedals 11 yards just to buy himself enough time for Ruggs to clear the safety and then drops a dime that travels 57-yards in the air right on the money. All on third down in the fourth quarter of a one-score game. Insane.
Honorable Mention: Henry Ruggs, Hunter Renfrow
Aside from the long touchdown, Ruggs set career highs in both receptions and targets — getting involved in every phase of the passing game. It was an encouraging day for the second-year man, who is trying to prove he’s more than just a deep threat.
Renfrow, on the other hand, was remarkable as expected. The final line of 5 receptions, 57 yards doesn’t seem all that remarkable — but in rewatching the game, it’s absurd how clutch this guy is. Of his five catches, four went for first downs — most of which involved a necessary amount of “slipperiness” in order to reach the sticks.
Defensive MVP: Raiders’ Run Defense
To be honest, I was pretty frustrated by a lot of the flack this group got after last week’s win over the Ravens. Baltimore finished with 189 yards on 34 carries — and as a result, many people said this phase of the defense needed to improve.
Digging just beneath the surface, however, would have revealed that if you take Lamar Jackson out of the equation (considering most of his rushing yards weren’t on designed runs), the Ravens ran for 103 yards on 22 carries. Still, not an amazing defensive line — but against one of the best rushing attacks in the league? You’ll take it.
This sort of belief was rewarded on Sunday when the Steelers ran for just 39 yards on 14 carries — thanks in part to a great effort along the defensive line, as well as a commitment from the second and third-level defenders to come down hard and swarm tackle.
Honorable Mention: Solomon Thomas, Denzel Perryman, Jonathan Abram, Dallin Leavitt
Lots of names, but each is worthy of acknowledgment. Thomas finished with two huge sacks, Perryman with a team-high 12 tackles (and he has been all over the place in both games thus far), and then Abram with 8 tackles that brought an energetic and physical presence to the defense. Leavitt is a guy I’ve been hyper-critical of in the past, but I have to acknowledge the huge hit he had on third down late in the game to force a Pittsburgh field goal.
Special Teams: Daniel Carlson
Ever since coming over from Minnesota, this guy has been amazing for the Raiders. He made all six kicks on Sunday and remains perfect on the season.
- While it’s harder to quantify, the Raiders’ corners have been really solid thus far — limiting big pass plays (for the most part) and providing sticky coverage. Casey Hayward allowed zero receptions Sunday while notching two pass breakups and a tackle as well. Trayvon Mullen wasn’t as flawless but did log the team’s only interception.
- The most bizarre moment of the game was with 8:34 remaining in the game and the Steelers facing 4th and 1 (maybe) from their own 35, trailing 23-14. Mike Tomlin opted to punt — allowing the Raiders to drain precious time off the clock before punting it back. At the moment I was so thrilled they punted — and yet, given their rushing performance, maybe it was the right move?
- Tomlin remained conservative after kicking a 56-yard field goal and opting to kick it deep with 3:43 remaining — probably assuming they could stop the Raiders’ run game. Little did he know that Gruden had a deep ball to Waller dialed up.
- It was nice to see Derek Carr execute a pair of QB sneaks effectively on Sunday. It feels like he has been one of the worst in the league on that play historically, but he had no issues on Sunday.
- The Raiders play Miami at home this week, but Tua Tagavailoa is questionable with bruised ribs. I had the Raiders losing this one in my season preview, but if he is out, I’d feel a lot better about things.