Updated September 19, 2021 - 3:46 pm
PITTSBURGH — The defensive look by the Pittsburgh Steelers ultimately decided where Derek Carr ended up going with the ball as the Raiders lined up for a third-and-10 from their 39-yard line in the fourth quarter on Sunday.
But given their tenuous 16-14 lead, the nine-plus minutes still remaining in the game and how momentum was slowly shifting to the Pittsburgh sidelines, there was a mindset and mandate that came out of the Raiders’ huddle.
The gist being: It’s time to put this thing away.
Which is why Carr, who went down with an injury earlier in the game, had no hesitancy heaving the ball about as far as he could as he braced for the Steelers’ blitz, and how Henry Ruggs, the speedy wide receiver on the other end of the throw, immediately shifted into another gear as he saw the football soaring high and far through the Pittsburgh sky.
The result was a 61-yard touchdown connection that essentially put away the Raiders’ 26-17 win over the Steelers at Heinz Field.
Against all odds, and while digging as deep into their depth as they care to go, the Raiders moved to 2-0. As the victories over the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens showed, they finally have a defense they can trust and enough weapons to take advantage of Jon Gruden’s thick playbook.
With the Miami Dolphins coming up Sunday at Allegiant Stadium, a different vibe is beginning to emerge from these Raiders.
“It’s an attitude thing,” said tight end Foster Moreau, who caught an equally important 9-yard touchdown pass from Carr in the third quarter. “There’s an air of confidence walking onto the field from every unit we have.”
All of which was reflected in the long touchdown throw to Ruggs, the 12th overall pick in the 2020 draft.
Working with just enough time behind the Raiders’ injury-ravaged offensive line, Carr had more than enough arm strength to throw the ball beyond the Steelers’ coverage. As for Ruggs, well, he had the necessary speed to split two Steelers defenders and run the ball down before dancing into the end zone for the touchdown.
“It’s one of the reasons why we took Ruggs,” said Raiders head coach Jon Gruden. “Not many guys can run that fast and track the ball.”
Or, as Carr said: “Speed kills.”
So much so that it actually changes Carr’s mindset. There is risk in purposely overthrowing a receiver, but Carr has seen Ruggs’ speed play out so many times on the practice field that he has confidence the second-year wide receiver will outrun everyone to the ball.
“It’s still an iffy decision,” Carr concedes. “But I can throw it past the coverage in some instances, and there’s a fine line there, but he goes and gets it. It’s unbelievable.”
One thing was racing through Ruggs’ head as he began tracking the ball.
“Don’t drop it,” he said. “Other than that, when I saw that one, it was run. He threw it up. It was just like, go get it. That’s all I could think of. Go get it and don’t drop it.”
Ruggs finished with five catches for 113 yards and a touchdown. Carr threw for 382 yards passing and two touchdowns.
The Raiders needed every single yard given the difficulty they had developing a run game behind an offensive line that started two backup guards and lost right tackle Alex Leatherwood to a first-half oblique injury.
Hence the 37 throws Carr had to make while spreading the ball among Ruggs, Darren Waller (five catches, 65 yards) Hunter Renfrow (5 for 57), Kenyan Drake (5 for 46), Bryan Edwards (3 for 40) and four other targets.
The killer being the long connection between Carr and Ruggs just as the Raiders seemed to be on the verge of reeling. Rather than falling back into old habits, though, they essentially knocked out the Steelers.
“It was certainly a big play,” Gruden said. “The protection — that’s a revolving door we’ve had up front — in a critical moment, and the throw from a quarterback that’s hurting. That was a lot of good stuff there to go around.”