Don Wright / Associated Press
Monday, Sept. 20, 2021 | 2 a.m.
Don’t drop the ball. Get to the ball.
Those were the two thoughts running through Raiders receiver Henry Ruggs’ head, in that order, as he sprinted down the grass at Heinz Field after quarterback Derek Carr launched a deep pass towards him in the fourth quarter on Sunday. He managed to achieve both objectives, hauling in a 61-yard touchdown pass that paved the way to the Raiders’ 26-17 victory over the Steelers.
“That’s one of the reasons we took Ruggs,” coach Jon Gruden said afterwards. “Not a lot of guys can run that fast and catch that ball.”
Las Vegas’ second straight victory to start the season was realization of the way Gruden envisioned his team playing this year. The Raiders executed lessons Gruden had harped on all offseason into training camp, even moreso than in their helter-skelter Monday Night Football victory over the Baltimore Ravens in week 1.
They played with a renewed defensive intensity, stayed resolute on offense even when things went wrong and displayed an overall perseverance as injuries continued to pile up.
“I’m really proud of our coaches and our players,” Gruden said after the game with his face still red and covered in sweat. “The effort is outstanding. If you’re a Raider fan, you really like these guys.”
Two games might be too early to declare the Raiders’ long-running defensive incompetence as solved, but the unit took another step forward against the Steelers. And it did from the onset.
The first points of the game were scored when cornerback Trayvon Mullen made an easy interception on a poor throw by Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He made a poor throw because Las Vegas’ defensive front had rapidly collapsed the pocket.
Roethlisberger was able to sidestep a charging-forward Yannick Ngakoue but not able to fully set his feet with Maxx Crosby bearing down from behind.
“It’s just us working together,” Mullen said. “The rush helped the pass coverage, the pass coverage helped the rush like coach always preaches.”
The Raiders scuffled on offense after the interception with rookie first-round right tackle Alex Leatherwood continuing to struggle by committing a false start and allowing a sack by T.J. Watt but another player Gruden has routinely praised came through. Veteran kicker Daniel Carlson legged a 46-yarder to make sure Las Vegas didn’t totally waste Mullen’s pick.
Carlson was automatic on Sunday, also knocking through 33-, 45- and 46-yard field goals. Not bad for a player who struggled in his first year with the Raiders in 2019 following a disappointing rookie season with the Minnesota Vikings.
Gruden showed faith in Carlson by sticking with him last year, and he’s been as reliable as any kicker in the league ever since.
“Sometimes you get all overwhelmed with how your draft picks are performing and you’ve got all these pro football stats about who had a good pick and who didn’t and you lose sight of sometimes guys have a change of scenery and they take off,” Gruden said.
He also applied that statement to defensive tackle Solomon Thomas, who broke out in his second game with the Raiders after the team took on the former 49ers’ No. 3 overall draft pick as a reclamation project this offseason. Perhaps aided by the Steelers’ scheming for and double-teaming of Ngakoue and Crosby, Thomas got through for two sacks.
The first came in the second quarter when he tripped up a scrambling Roethlisberger at the line of scrimmage and helped set up Carlson’s second field goal. The second came more traditionally in the third quarter, in the pocket, and eventually led to the Raiders’ first touchdown.
“Coverage was amazing, Max and Yan made him step up a couple times and I was able to get there,” Thomas said. “It feels really good especially coming off of ACL (surgery) and being here with (a new) team.”
Carr was sacked twice on the day himself in no small part because of the Raiders’ makeshift offensive line. With two starters already down at guard, Leatherwood exited in the second quarter with an oblique strain.
But after drives continually stalled in the first half, Carr got into a rhythm in the second. He finished with 382 yards on 28-for-37 passing, far outdueling Roethlisberger who went 27-for-40 for 295 yards. Carr completed nine straight passes late in the third quarter into the fourth quarter, including a 25-yard line touchdown to tight end Foster Moreau in the corner of the end zone.
A hit that appeared late on replay from a grounded player sent Carr to the field, however, and cut the celebration short for a score that put the Raiders up 16-7 as his teammates huddled around him.
“All of a sudden I look up and there are like 30 people and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ll be O.K.,’ but first thing I asked was, ‘Did we score?’’ Carr recalled. “And no one answered. I go, ‘Did he freaking catch it?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, he caught it.’ So it was, ‘O.K. get me up.’”
Despite the scene making the injury look severe, Carr sat out no snaps and walked with no limp on tape-free ankles after the game. Mullen and linebacker Denzel Perryman missed time, however, as a pair of simultaneous short trips to the locker room assisted Pittsburgh’s final touchdown drive.
Roethlisberger picked on Damon Arnette with Mullen out of the game, completing a 52-yard pass to Chase Claypool against the second-year cornerback and then finding Najee Harris for a 25-yard touchdown. That cut Las Vegas’ lead to two points and energized the Heinz Field crowd.
Not for long though. Ruggs’ touchdown came five plays later.
“We just looked at the coverage and knew we got it,’ Ruggs said. “We felt like we were going to make a play.”
Pittsburgh got within six late, settling for a 56-yard field goal after Perryman led another successful defensive effort with a couple textbook open-field tackles. But the Steelers never led for more than a few minutes after their first touchdown, a three-yard handoff to receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, in the second quarter.
The Raiders were too steady in all three phases of the game, with one unit stepping up for the other when it was necessary — exactly how Gruden hoped this team would play coming into the season.
“It’s an attitude thing,” Moreau said. “There’s an air of confidence walking out to the field for every unit we have, which is extremely underrated and I don’t know if everyone can say that. A lot of teams work hard and a lot of teams have good players but I feel like we’re really coming into our own.”