ATLANTA – The Steelers have had bigger rushing days this season than the 154 yards they had on the ground here Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
But this might have been the team's most impressive effort.
The Steelers ground out 154 yards on 37 carries in this game against the Falcons to improve to 5-7 on the season. And they did it with a long run of just 14 yards.
This was done with the Falcons getting just two tackles for a loss the entire game. And both were on quarterback Kenny Pickett, including the second one, on which Pickett simply took the ball on a bootleg and slid to the ground to keep the clock running to close out this 19-16 victory.
This rushing attack pounded away on the Falcons like rain on a sand castle.
"Gritty," was how running back Najee Harris, who had 17 carries for 86 yards, described it. "We knew that's what it was going to be. Eventually the big runs will come. But this game, it was just a hard 86."
Now, to be clear, the Falcons don't have a particularly fierce run-stopping unit. But the Steelers seemingly got 5 yards every time they ran the ball.
Because of that, they were 6 of 12 on third downs – making them 30 of 60 on third down conversions in their past four games.
Not coincidentally, they're 3-1 in those games and are averaging more than 150 yards rushing in that period.
This newly discovered rushing attack is making this team go.
"I told Naj a couple of weeks ago, this is the time of the season where backs take over," said veteran center Mason Cole. "You can start to feel that a little bit. You can feel him starting to gain momentum and just running really hard. A lot of them were dirty runs, 3, 4, 5 yards."
They might have been dirty and gritty, but they were highly effective.
And it wasn't just Harris, who averaged 5.1 yards per carry in this game. Jaylen Warren, Benny Snell and even fullback Derek Watt chipped in eight carries for 32 yards.
"That's going to help us win games," said tight end Pat Freiermuth. "The o-line has been playing great and we're appreciative of them and Naj has been running hard."
And as we've seen the past two weeks, strong running games travel.
Not only have the Steelers won two games in a row for the first time this season, they won them on the road.
Effectively running the ball against an opponent on the road is a great way to suck the life out of a stadium – though Sunday's crowd was clearly heavy on Steelers fans.
"I think it's us trying to establish a run game early. It's helping us open our offense," said left tackle Dan Moore. "It's giving us little flexibility to just do different things and spread things out. It's helping the passing game. It gives us confidence, as well, on offense."
• The next step is to finish more of those drives off.
The Steelers had just one three-and-out in this game. They didn't punt until early in the fourth quarter.
Yet they scored just 19 points, settling for four field goals from Matthew Wright and rookie tight end Connor Heyward's first career touchdown catch in the second quarter.
They had field goal scoring drives of 16 plays for 52 yards to open the game, 12 for 58 on their second possession, nine 9 for 45 and 14 for 71. The possessed and moved the ball.
But they often got bogged down because of penalties and dropped or off-target passes.
"We came out playing fast and moving the ball," said wide receiver Diontae Johnson. "Obviously, we didn't put up the points that we should, but we were able to get field goals. We want to put more points on the board to help the defense out and take some pressure off them. I feel like we've been playing good. We've just got to continue it.
"We've just got to keep working, focus on the little details, not hurt ourselves with penalties. Keep playing, keep getting better."
Johnson had a third-down drop to end one field goal drive. But he didn't run away from that.
"I just looked up the field and looked back at the ball," he said. "I'm not making any excuses. I've got to catch the ball."
It would be one thing if the Steelers weren't capable of moving the ball consistently. That was an issue earlier in the season. It's not now.
So, cashing in on long drives is critical.
"The first drive was a 16-play drive. We've just got to get 7," said center Mason Cole. "To get a 16-play drive and get a field goal, it kind of demoralizes us. We felt we could run the ball the whole game."
They did that. They also threw the ball effectively, as well.
But it's no coincidence their one touchdown drive was the possession on which they did it in quick-strike fashion, using a 57-yard catch-and-run from Freiermuth to set up Heyward for his first career touchdown. That was a four-play, 80-yard touchdown drive.
The Steelers need more of that.
• It was no secret that kickoff coverage was lacking in last week's win over the Colts.
And that didn't bode well going into this game against the Falcons, who have the most dangerous kick returner in the NFL in Cordarrelle Patterson.
The Steelers made him a non-factor in the kicking game.
Despite Atlanta moving Patterson all around the back end of their kick return unit in an effort to try to force the Steelers to kick the ball to him, Wright was able to keep it away from Patterson. And the Steelers' coverage units converged on anyone else who caught the ball, holding Atlanta to 18.3 yards per return.
Special teams captain Miles Killebrew credited special teams coordinator Danny Smith.
"Danny had a great plan. That's a great special teams unit that they have," Killebrew said. "They're first in the league in both punt and kickoff returns. Anytime you're playing Cordarrelle, he's the best statistically to ever do it. Danny had a great plan. The guys really executed. We wanted to make sure we were playing desperate – the good kind of desperate."
In what turned out to be a three-point game, not allowing Patterson to wreck things with a return was huge.
"Oh yeah," Killebrew said. "Anytime you're keeping someone with his skill set to minimal impact in any phase, it's a victory. I don't want to take anything away from what they do, but our guys performed very well."
• So, the Steelers now find themselves at 5-7 heading back home to host the Ravens.
They're not completely back in any kind of playoff race in a very competitive AFC, but they're not dead yet, either.
And that's how they're approaching things.
"We're trying to win out the rest of the season and hopefully get a chance to get into the playoffs," said Johnson. "We're focused on one game at a time. We're not giving up. Getting these two wins gives us more confidence."
We'll see if the Ravens have quarterback Lamar Jackson available next week. He left Baltimore's 10-9 win over the Broncos with a sprained knee and did not return.
Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 13 game against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Remember, Baltimore was 8-3 last season when Jackson went down with an ankle injury. They finished 8-9, losing their last six games without him.
That's why, even when things were at their bleakest point for the Steelers this season, they didn't give up.
Keep playing, try to put some wins together and see where that gets you at the end of all of this.
• How smart of a player is free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick?
Smart enough to know to run out of bounds at the Atlanta 4 after picking off quarterback Marcus Mariota with the Steelers leading 19-16 and 35 seconds remaining.
Why is that smart?
Let's say that Fitzpatrick tries to score there. Would a 10-point cushion have been good? Absolutely. But let's say he gets hit at the goal line – there was a Falcons player closing on him – and fumbles into the end zone. Atlanta would have gotten the ball out at the 20.
It would have been like Fitzpatrick's interception never happened.
"As soon as I caught the ball, it was time to go home," said Fitzpatrick, noting he had no intention of trying for the end zone there. "We got the win, I'm good."
• The Falcons came into this game with a 58-42 run-pass ratio, the second-highest ratio in the league.
So, of course they came out and tried to throw the ball 17 times, while running it six times, in the first half.
"I think they were trying to throw us off guard because they knew that we knew they were going to try to run the ball," said Fitzpatrick. "So, they were getting into big personnel and throwing the ball, which was not something they did often. I think they were trying to throw us off a little bit. Then they just reverted back to what they do in the second half."
The Falcons had six rushing attempts for 28 yards in the first half. They ran the ball 22 times for 118 yards in the second half.
It never ceases to amaze when coaches get away from what they do well – in the case of the Falcons, very well – in an effort to trick an opponent.
"They do one thing all the way leading up to a game, you think that they are going to stick to what they do and then all of a sudden, they play us and seem to change a little bit," said linebacker T.J. Watt. "You can never really be surprised. At the end of the day, we have to be able to defend what they give us."
• Freiermuth is good, and opponents are starting to realize that.
The Falcons on several third downs in this game put No. 1 cornerback A.J. Terrell on the big tight end.
Freiermuth finished this game with just three catches, but for 76 yards, making the offensive play of the game on his 57-yard catch-and-run.
"It is what it is. He's a pretty good corner, their best corner," Freiermuth said. "I appreciate it, I guess, but I got him a couple of times."
When Freiermuth caught his 57-yard catch in front of the Steelers' bench, he bowled over safety Jaylinn Hawkins, stumbled and then regained his composure, taking off down the sideline.
"I haven't seen that much green grass in a while. It was cool," Freiermuth said.
Not as cool as seeing Heyward catch his first career touchdown right after that.
"I had to give it to him in his hometown," Freiermuth said. "I'm happy for him. It's awesome. To score your first career touchdown in your home city is awesome. He's worked so hard. He's a great teammate to be around, too."
• Just a reminder to everyone that the Steelers have won four consecutive games over the Ravens, regardless of whether Jackson is playing or not.
• A nod of the cap to punter Pressley Harvin, as well.
Remember, he only kicked twice in this game, with neither kick coming until the fourth quarter.
Harvin hit a perfect punt after the Steelers had run the clock down inside of one minute and forced the Falcons to use all of their timeouts. It bounced straight into the air and was downed by Myles Boykin at the 2, setting the stage for Fitzpatrick's interception.
• It was cool to see Cam Heyward sporting his father, Craig's, No. 34 Falcons jersey in the locker room after this game.
As big as Cam is, the jersey would have probably fit his father, a nimble fullback, who had 1,000 yards rushing for the Falcons in 1995.
Connor Heyward scored his first career touchdown. Cam Heyward had a sack. And the Steelers got a win.
Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, who died of a brain tumor at 39 in 2006, is buried in Atlanta.
"Me and (Connor) went to my dad's grave and we got to share a moment there," Cam Heyward said. "And so, I was pretty emotional when he got the touchdown. I don't like to be Mr. Sappy, but that really hit me. Luckily, there wasn't a camera on me because I was a mess."
Ironhead Heyward would have appreciated the heck of this game, with both teams playing smash mouth football and his two sons starring in it.