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Raiders’ quick slants: Steelers Edition

Dubious decisions by Las Vegas coaching staff dooms team in home opener

Pittsburgh Steelers v Las Vegas Raiders
Las Vegas Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels, left, walks off the field with safety Marcus Epps. Questionable calls in the final sequence for the Raiders offense and defense scuttled the team’s chance of getting a home-opening victory on Sunday night.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Josh McDaniels’ decision to kick a 26-yard field goal with with just over two minutes left to trim the disadvantage to 23-18 was one thing. Patrick Graham’s decision to call a nickel blitz on 3rd-and-2 just three players that left a wide receiver wide open for an easy first-down conversion was another.

Both contributed heavily to the Las Vegas Raiders’ 23-18 home-opening loss to the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night. The duo of dubious distinctions from the chief play callers on the Silver & Black staff — amongst a myriad of other things — scuttled the home team’s hopes of improving to 2-1 inside Allegiant Stadium. Instead, the Steelers — benefactors of both a well-traveled fan base and Las Vegas being a destination game — sent their elated crowd out onto the strip, happy.

McDaniels, the head coach and offensive play caller, and Graham, the defensive coordinator and conductor of the defense, each had their shining moments. But it was the warts and mistakes from their respective sides of the ball that stand out most.

McDaniels’ hand-picked quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw three interceptions (the last of which was an inconsequential game-ender) and was sacked four times despite connecting with wide receiver Davante Adams 13 times for 172 yards and two touchdowns. The Raiders offense started with a bang when it executed McDaniels’ daring play call on 4th-and-1 play on the Steelers’ 32-yard line that saw Garoppolo run play action and Pittsburgh selling out to stop the run. This allowed Adams to coast towards the end zone, catch Garoppolo’s lob for the 32-yard score.

From there, however, Las Vegas was blanked until the fourth quarter. In between were two Garoppolo picks along with not seeing and firing to open receiving options.

“Those are plays obviously we don’t want to make,” McDaniels said in the post game press conference. “I think Jimmy makes a lot of good plays, but obviously when the quarterback holds the ball, he holds the fortune of our team also in his hands when he’s doing those things. He knows. He understands the situation. Had a couple plays where we’ve got to make a smarter choice and just go ahead and go to the next play whether its second-and-long or whatever it may be.

“But turning it over, this team is a team historically that, they win when they get turnovers. They have a harder time when they don’t. Big key obviously for us was to take care of the ball and we didn’t do a good enough job.”

The turnovers allowed the Steelers to not only play keep away, but also find consistency on offense — something that was glaringly absent with offensive coordinator Matt Canada being labeled one of the worst play callers in the league heading into Week 3.

Flip the script, and the Raiders defense did relatively well — before it eventually broke due to the offense’s inability to maintain possession by moving the chains or scoring. A would-be interception for a touchdown by Marcus Peters’ in the first quarter loomed large, but Graham’s defense kept things close 16-7 early in the third quarter. But a bad Garoppolo interception gave Pittsburgh the ball back and the team went on a six-play, 81-yard scoring drive that culminated in quarterback Kenny Pickett (16 of 28 for 235 yards and two touchdowns) finding tight end Pat Freiermuth for a 13-yard touchdown pass.

The Raiders did make a go of it after Garoppolo hooked up with Adams on a one-yard touchdown pass to cap an 11-play, 80-yard drive to cut the Steelers lead to 23-15, but after getting (uncharacteristic) help from referees on calls that extended drives, McDaniels settled for the field goal and banked on Graham and his defense getting the ball back for the offense. Pittsburgh had other ideas and took advantage of Las Vegas nickel corner Nate Hobbs blitzing and Pickett hit a wide open Allen Robinson for the easy conversion.

Let’s hit the quick slants as fast as the Steelers answered the Raiders’ initial touchdown score with one of their own:

—Pittsburgh speedster Calvin Austin III burned veteran Las Vegas cornerback Marcus Peters on a 72-yard catch and run to knot the score at seven apiece. It was a play where Graham dialed up a blitz that didn’t hit home and Peters couldn’t keep up with Austin.

—Peters may have been torched on that play but came back by reading run plays well and getting stops for loss in the Steelers backfield. But that missed opportunity on the potential Pick 6 is disconcerting. Especially considering Peters made that play routinely in the past.

—T.J. Watt paced the Steelers defense with two sacks while Markus Golden and Keaanu Benton pitching in with sacks of their own. Watt was his usual destructive self racking up two quarterback hits. Alex Highsmith didn’t record a sack but notched two QB hits.

—Both punters got plenty of work in during the Sunday night clash. The Raiders’ AJ Cole booted the ball five times for 262 yards (52.4 average) with one dropping inside the 20 and one touchback. The Steelers’ Pressley Harvin III had six punts for 323 yards (53.8 average) with three dropping inside the 20 and no touchbacks.

—Raiders wide receiver Jakobi Meyers returned after missing Week 2 and picked up where he left off hauling in seven passes for 85 yards. He got 12 targets from Garoppolo while Adams was the clear-cut leader with 20 throws going his way.

—Slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, however, got two targets and hauled both passes in for a meager 17 yards.

—Raiders running back Josh Jacobs got 17 carries for 62 yards (3.6 average per carry) with a long of 10 yards. Las Vegas’ ground game is getting stymied frequently with Jacobs being met in backfield by more than one defender at times.

Quote of Note:

“We’ve got to be real with ourselves. We get these opportunities to watch tape together and do these constructive things, we’ve got to get something out of it. That’s not just talking, but it’s about putting it to action and figuring out what’s wrong and doing something about it so that way when we go out there the next time it looks different.” —Raiders wide receiver Davante Adams after the loss