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Labriola On

Labriola on the win over the Falcons

The Steelers won a game on Sunday, their second in a row and third in the four played since coming off their bye in mid-November. It would be nice if it counted more than one, or if it could be said about the victory that it reflected some significant or dramatic or permanent improvement in a critical area of their performance.

But none of that can be said about the Steelers 19-16 victory in Atlanta over the Falcons – at least not truthfully – but as has been the case with Kenny Pickett and Najee Harris and the offensive line and the defense against the run, it reflects progress. Maybe gradual progress, but certainly not insignificant, and even though the victory didn't vault the Steelers into the playoff conversation, it did move them farther away from a top 5 draft pick.

Ever since the back-to-back losses in Miami and in Philadelphia that dropped the Steelers to 2-6 at Halloween, the team put its bye to good use and returned to work, and that work has manifested itself in some victories as well as a resiliency revealed by continuing to fight the fight when a lesser group might have – if not quit outright – made the business decision to collect the paychecks while going through the motions.

There surely are countless examples of players and/or coaches continuing to fight the fight, and one that stands out is Najee Harris. After a rough summer that included a foot injury that relegated him to a role that was part-time spectator and part-time invalid, Harris struggled with every aspect of his profession. Out of synch with his blockers and zigging when he should've been zagging, Harris posted zero 100-yard games and only once ended one with a per-carry average of better than 4.0. And that was a 4.11 in early October against the Jets.

It's now a full month after the bye, and while Harris still doesn't have a 100-yard game, he has rushed for 86-or-more yards in three of the last four, and in the fourth he was injured. After that win over the Colts, it was said Harris had sustained an oblique injury, and the Steelers medical team took it seriously enough to have him taken to an Indianapolis hospital and examined for internal injuries.

Harris did go home on the team's charter, and he had to work his body back to being able to participate in an NFL in-season practice that week. Officially listed as "questionable" on the practice report, Harris was given the thumbs-up on Sunday morning to be a full-go against the Falcons. The performance he then turned in was a statement of professional character.

The final tally was 86 yards rushing on 17 carries, which meant Harris carried the ball more times and gained more yards than anyone else in the game, and during the broadcast CBS offered that 40 of those 86 yards rushing had come after contact. Harris was running angry, to use a scouting description, and did it on a day when he could've "called off sick," and nobody would've given it a second thought.

Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 13 game against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

By no means is Harris the only player making that level of commitment, because the Steelers don't leave Atlanta with a victory if he was alone. And if the rest of this season is spent identifying those players and coaches for the purpose of continuing to do business with them while moving on from others, then 2022 will deserve to be considered a success. Maybe that realization only happens in the rearview mirror, but the 2003 season has come to be seen in a similar light. If you follow the breadcrumbs, it comes into focus.

Anyway, the Steelers put together another winning performance that, as Bill Cowher once said, "was no Mozart," but as Tomlin now says, "winning is our business." Coachspeak aside, defeating the Falcons was a good sign that there could be more of these in the future, no matter how ugly.

Coming into the game, there were several obvious matchups that on paper were not in the Steelers' favor. Atlanta was the No. 4 rushing team in the NFL, and while the Steelers' run defense was No. 6 in stopping the run there also were the memories of the second half in Cleveland and the fourth quarter vs. New England. Quarterback Marcus Mariota was a legitimate threat to run the ball, either by design or improvisation, and the Steelers had some issues with 37-year-old Matt Ryan the previous Monday. And six days after allowing the Colts to average 45.0 yards on 5 kickoff returns, including an 89-yard return by Dallis Flowers to open the second half and flip the script, the assignment was going to be Cordarelle Patterson, one of the most accomplished kickoff returners in NFL history.

Atlanta rushed for 146 yards (5.2 average), but it was less than the 154 yards (4.2 average) the Steelers offense gained. And in the first half, the Falcons rushed for 28 yards, while the offense produced 94 (4.7 average) in staking the Steelers to a 16-6 lead. Mariota finished with just 17 yards rushing, his passing stats fell below Kenny Pickett's in every major category, and Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted him with 35 seconds left to ice the outcome. Lastly, the Steelers punt team and kickoff team were dominant.

The Falcons entered the game ranked second in the NFL in kickoff returns, with Cordarelle Patterson averaging 33.5 yards per return, with a 103-yarder for a touchdown this season. And the Falcons led the NFL in punt returns, with Avery Williams averaging 17.4 yards per return.

Williams ended up with no punt return yardage, and Patterson finished with zero kickoff return yardage. Pressley Harvin III forced Williams into a fair catch with his first punt, and then Miles Boykin downed the second at the Atlanta 2-yard line with 42 seconds left. The kickoff team kept the ball away from Patterson the whole game. Three of Matthew Wright's kickoffs were touchbacks; his opening kickoff was kicked directly to fullback Keith Smith, who was deployed as Patterson's blocking back; and then the other two went to Williams, who replaced Smith alongside Patterson and returned them 20 and 25 yards.

"That's two victories in a row that were much needed," said Tomlin. "Trying to find that rhythm and do what good teams do, which is stack winning performances on top of winning performances. That's the first time we've done it this year. If you're going to be somebody to be considered and considered seriously, you have to stack wins."