5 for Friday: Steelers need to get back to identity

Throughout the offseason and training camp, the Steelers to a man talked about how they had developed an offensive identity in the second half of last season that included running the ball and being physical up front.

We didn't see that come to fruition in Week 1's 30-7 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

In their first five offensive possessions against the 49ers, the Steelers ran the ball four times for two yards. Overall, they ran the ball 10 times for 41 yards in the game. Both were NFL lows in Week 1.

"There were a couple plays early and a couple runs that we didn't quite get the way we wanted," said Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada. "They're a really good team. I'm giving them all the credit. It's just there were some things and some opportunities to make some plays that we felt like we could have made even as good as they are. 

"We just didn't get the execution or the plays. It just didn't work. It's on all of us to find out why and get back to playing the way we were playing and have played and worked through this whole process."

With Diontae Johnson now out for at least this week's game Monday night against the Cleveland Browns, there's no better time to get back to the personality the Steelers felt they had coming into the season.

And that means involving running back Najee Harris more in the game plan.

In four career games against the Browns, Harris has averaged 23 carries for 103.8 yards and a touchdown.

In two home games against Cleveland, Harris has gained 268 yards on 51 carries.

The Steelers added guard Isaac Seumalo in free agency and massive tight end Darnell Washington in the draft to better be able to play bully ball.

With Johnson sidelined, there's no better time than now to be a bully.

Cleveland made moves this offseason to help improve its run defense, which was one of the worst in the league last season, allowing 135.0 yards per game.

Defensive tackles Dalvin Tomlinson and Shelby Harris were added in free agency. Massive nose tackle Siaki Ika came through the draft.

The Browns allowed 75 yards on 20 carries to the Bengals last week, but Joe Mixon only got 13 of those rushing attempts, gaining 56 yards. That's 4.3 yards per carry, not great, but also not bad.

And Harris, Ika and Maurice Hurst, three of the five defensive tackles on Cleveland's roster, missed practice on Thursday with injuries.

The Steelers could certainly lean heavily on Harris and fellow running back Jaylen Warren without Johnson in the lineup. That doesn't mean the coaching staff doesn't believe in quarterback Kenny Pickett and the Steelers' remaining wide receivers.

Those players will need to make plays, as well, if the Steelers are going to right the ship.

But if the Steelers can establish their running game as they did so effectively in the second half of last season when they averaged 146 yards per game on the ground, it will open things up for everything else.

"We got behind and we were trying to play catch up," said Pickett of last week's game. "That goes back to us just being successful on early downs, staying out of third-and-longs, and playing on time with the football. So, (running the ball) is a task that we got to get on earlier in the game."

Not only will that help the Steelers offensively, but it won't hurt defensively, either, keeping a unit missing defensive lineman Cam Heyward off the field.

• With Heyward out at least four weeks after having surgery to repair a groin injury, much of the focus has been on the young defensive lineman who will be tasked with taking his place – DeMarvin Leal, Isaiahh Loudermilk and rookie Keeanu Benton among them.

That's important. But equally as important will be the Steelers' other defensive stars – outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick among them – making big plays.

Watt did his part last week against the 49ers, recording three sacks and two forced fumbles. The Steelers will need more of that, to be sure. But they also need their other stars to shine, as well, to hold things down until Heyward returns.

Outside of the play of Watt, there wasn't a lot to like about last week's game. But some of that can be attributed to communication issues with the Steelers playing so many new bodies on defense.

That can't be an excuse moving forward.

"I don't think we can single out anybody really other than T.J. that really played well last week," said defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. "We all have to do better."

• Kick returns were down across the NFL in Week 1 as many teams chose to take advantage of the new rule that allows teams to call for a fair catch on kickoffs and take the ball at the 25-yard line.

Only 20.5 percent of kickoffs were returned in Week 1, the lowest amount in a single week in the NFL since at least 2000.

But Steelers kick returner Anthony McFarland was fairly aggressive returning kickoffs in Week 1. Though he elected to call for a fair catch on four of the seven opportunities he had in last week's 30-7 loss to the 49ers, he did have returns on three attempts.

McFarland averaged a healthy 30.3 yards per attempt, with a long return of 34 yards. Only Rashid Shaheed of the Saints (5) and Chicago's Tyler Scott (4) attempted more returns last week than McFarland, while only New England's Ty Montgomery (31.0) averaged more yards per return.

McFarland said he talks to special teams coordinator Danny Smith each time before he goes out for a return to see what the setup on the kick is going to be and to gauge how aggressive he wants to be.

"I go to Danny Smith and he tells me if I'm dropping back five yards deep, sit it down. If I'm two yards deep and in, bring it out," McFarland said. "Or if we're looking for a spark. I kind of want to bring it out every time I get it, but I've got to play it smart and make good decisions."

Though it's early in the season, with so many kicks not being returned, it will be incumbent upon special teams coaches to stay diligent and remind their coverage units not to simply relax and expect a fair catch. Do that, and disaster could strike.

"Don't get caught off guard with the fair catching," McFarland warned. "They do that and then you bring it out. You can lull some people to sleep with that. It's about making good decisions back there. I try to make good decisions."

• Six offenses scored 10 or fewer points in Week 1, the Steelers among them.

That total matched the number of teams that scored 10 or fewer points in Week 1 a year ago.

Of those six teams that didn't break 10 points a year ago, three were San Francisco, Dallas and the Packers. All three of those teams wound up averaging 20 or more points per game last season, with the Cowboys finishing fourth in the NFL in scoring.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

Bottom line is that those kind of games happen. Obviously, it's not the way you want to start the season.

But it's easy to forget there are still 16 more games left in the season.

• Cleveland's Nick Chubb, or "Mr. Chubb," as Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin respectively called him throughout his press conference earlier this week, is perhaps the NFL's best pure runner.

He's big. He's fast. And he has great vision.

But in the seven games in which the Browns have now been quarterbacked by Deshawn Watson, Chubb has failed to score a single touchdown.

That stretch is easily the longest of Chubb's career. The previous longest stretch of games Chubb had without scoring came in his second season in 2019 when he went four consecutive games without scoring.

In nine career games against the Steelers, Chubb, who has scored 48 rushing touchdowns in 76 games, has gotten into the end zone just twice.