Lolley's 10 Thoughts: Steelers find their running game

It was midseason last year that the Steelers began to turn things around with their running game. Perhaps we've reached a similar point with this season.

The Steelers rushed for a season-high 166 yards on 30 carries in Thursday night's 20-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans, looking like a team that has been running the ball well all season long.

Thing is, they hadn't been doing so.

The Steelers came into this game averaging 79.7 rushing yards per game. Their season-high in rushing yards had been 114. They had broken 100 yards rushing just twice this season.

So, what changed?

Well, for one, rookie offensive tackle Broderick Jones was inserted into the starting lineup at right tackle in place of Chuks Okorafor. And he was active in the running game.

But Jones didn't want to take credit.

"The running backs just really did a great job," Jones said. "They had great eyes, just being able to see when the lanes were opening up and when they're not, being able to bounce it to the outside. I commend them."

The running backs produced 157 of those rushing yards on 27 carries. Jaylen Warren had a game-high 88 yards on just 11 carries, while Najee Harris had 69 yards and a touchdown on 16 attempts.

They, however, weren't taking the credit for this outburst, either.

"Just people getting on the guys and bullying them," said Warren. "O-linemen getting on their guys, tight ends, receivers, that's why it worked out to be such a big night."

And head coach Mike Tomlin went another direction with it.

He attributed the offense staying on the field more often and sustaining drives to the Steelers being able to run the ball more and thus produce more yards.

"I thought we converted some third downs earlier. You know, we've been talking about it. You convert possession downs, you get more snaps," Tomlin said. "So I think we converted our first third down of the game. I don't know how many of those we've had.

"When you are converting third downs, you get more snap opportunities, and that usually leads to the attrition component of play, and really that's kind of representative of the run game."

So which is it? What can this improved running game be attributed to?

How about all of the above.

The running backs did a good job of hitting the holes quickly. The offensive line got more push. And the Steelers 6 of 12 on third downs in the game on just eight meaningful possessions – not counting a final kneel-down.

When you stay on the field, you're able to run the ball more. And when the offensive line is creating holes, the running backs find more lanes. You get the idea.

Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 9 game against the Tennessee Titans at Acrisure Stadium

It's what the Steelers did a lot of in the second half of the 2022 season, when they converted 54 percent of their third downs over the final nine games and went on to average 146.2 yards per game on the ground.

• Of course, to be able to do that, you've got to have success on first downs, whether you're running the ball or throwing it.

And the Steelers largely in this game got positive yardage on first downs throughout this game. The Steelers gained 134 yards on their 25 first-down plays, not including the knee Kenny Pickett took at the end of the game.

That's 5.36 yards per play on first down. And they did that by both running and passing on first down.

When you're typically facing second-and-5, you can stick with the running game. And convert third downs.

• Tuesday was a walk-through practice for the Steelers. But it was an important walk-through – and not just because the team played again on Thursday.

Tuesday, Tomlin informed Jones he would be taking some snaps at right tackle. Tuesday also was when Joey Porter Jr., coming off his first career start on Sunday, went to Tomlin and asked to follow Tennessee's top receiving threat, DeAndre Hopkins, around the field.

"I asked Coach T to give me that work on Tuesday," Porter said. "He was a little hesitant because I'm a rookie. But he let me do it. I'm happy he let me do that and trusted me.

"He just had to warm up to it. I'm glad he did."

Now, Porter wasn't matched on Hopkins all the time. But he was with him on what Tomlin likes to call weighty downs – ie. third downs and in the red zone.

The results for Hopkins was four catches for 60 yards on 11 targets. He didn't have a catch in the second half. Porter had three tackles and a pass defense.

It wasn't all rosy. Porter had a couple of penalties, but he was game for the fight against a wide receiver who plays as physically as any player at the position in the league. Hopkins doesn't just invite contact, he relishes it.

"You're going to get some of those battles playing that game with him," Porter said.

• As for the decision to start Jones, Tomlin said he was looking for something in particular from the team's first-round draft pick.

"I just thought we needed a spark," Tomlin said. "I thought Broderick had worked hard and was deserving of the opportunity, so we gave it to him."

What did Jones think when he was told to get some snaps at right tackle, a position he hadn't played since his freshman season in college at Georgia?

"When Coach T tells you to do something, you don't ask, you just do it," Jones said. "That's all it was. He told me to be prepared to play on the right side. I said, 'OK.' That was the end of that."

Not only did the Steelers run the ball for a season-high in yardage, Pickett was not sacked in the game.

• Things weren't all rosy in this one.

Linebacker Cole Holcomb, part of the team's three-man rotation at inside linebacker, was lost late in the first quarter to what appeared to be a serious knee injury.

The other two members of the inside linebacker rotation, Kwon Alexander and Elandon Roberts, showed up in a big way with Holcomb out of the game.

Roberts led the Steelers with nine tackles, including one for a loss. Alexander had two tackles and a game-clinching interception.

"Just stay focused. We're playing for Cole," Alexander said what his thoughts were after seeing Holcomb go down. "That's my dog. I don't really know what's going on with the situation. But I'm praying for him. We've just got to come back and lock in, play for him the rest of the year, whatever's going on."

Roberts was so concerned with what had happened, he tried to call Holcomb immediately after the game.

"As soon as I got in, I tried to call him. But he's probably going through a lot of evaluations right now. I don't even know what is going on. I'm just praying for him," he said. "I want to pick up the phone so bad. I'm kind of emotional about it inside. I want to see him. But I understand this league and I understand guys and I know I probably won't see him tonight. That's my guy.

"We're all very close in this inside linebacker room. I've got to put my eyes on him and see what's going on. I'm not going to get too much sleep tonight. That's my brother. For me, it's emotional. All I know is that when I was out there, I said, 'I got to show up for 55.' From that point on, I was out there performing for him."

• For Cam Heyward, this game took on a different kind of meaning.

After missing the past six games because of a groin injury, Heyward made his return to the lineup. He had six tackles, including one for a loss.

"Coach T had said last week, 'I want to take the wrapper off of you and see if we can go Thursday.' I've just been working my tail off to get here," I'm just excited to be back and be with the guys in a different state that I've been for seven weeks. It's been a long time."

Heyward's presence on the defense made a difference when it came to limiting Tennessee's Derrick Henry. Henry had 75 yards on 17 carries, but he didn't take over the game as he is capable of doing.

Tomlin knew he was going to get Heyward back for this game, but he also made sure he continually poked Roberts regarding Henry, knowing Roberts would be a key factor in that, as well. Roberts was asked about stopping Henry by the media, as well.

"I've been up against Derrick many times. I'm not taking that from him. That's kind of poking me," Roberts said. "It's good. Personally, me, that just prepares me for the battle. Look at what he's done. He deserves to get that kind of light. It doesn't make me mad, but it does make want to come into the game and perform well because I feel like I'm the best run-stopper in the game. I feel I've been that way over the years."

Roberts had some big collisions with Henry. Most people leave those collisions feeling like they've been hit by a truck. Not Roberts.

"I'm the truck," he said.

• Diontae Johnson had gone 119 receptions and 655 days without scoring a touchdown. He waited for a very opportune time to break that string, catching the game-winning score in this one.

"I just saw it on Twitter today," Johnson said of that streak. "I was like, 'Really? It's been that long?' But I'm happy I got in the end zone and I'm looking forward to getting in the end zone next week."

It's not as if Johnson hasn't been a touchdown producer in the past. He had 20 touchdowns in his first three seasons before being shut out last season.

• Offensive coordinator Matt Canada called this game from the sideline instead of being upstairs in the booth as he had been in every other game as offensive coordinator.

"We communicate really well with the headset," Pickett said of having Canada on the sideline. "No one else gets a chance to do that. So, I think him being able to go to each position group and kind of get on the same page with them and kind of let them know what we're thinking going into each drive, I think it was a positive."

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

The Steelers certainly moved the ball more fluidly.

• Tomlin showed a lot of confidence in his defense in the closing moments of this game. After getting a fourth-down stop at midfield just before the two-minute warning, the Steelers ran the ball three consecutive times – which wasn't a bad plan considering how well they were running the ball.

But they also made the Titans use two of their final three timeouts.

Rookie Will Levis showed a knack for standing in the pocket and trying to make throws, but it was going to be tough for him to move the Titans 85 yards in 1:44 with just one timeout remaining.

The Steelers got their hands on the ball several times during the drive, which ended with Alexander making an interception at the goal line. But they did finally cash in.

"It's very special that you can come out at the end and finish the game. That's really big," Alexander said. "That's really big for me and the defense. That's putting us back out there to handle business and we did that.

"He had faith in us and we went out there and did our job. That's what we're going to keep doing."

• This was not a pretty game. There were 17 combined penalties, with six Tennessee first downs coming via that route.

But it was a win. And it should have been expected in a game between these two teams – and perhaps more importantly, these two coaches.

No two coaches in the NFL are better at uglying up a game than Tomlin and Tennessee's Mike Vrabel.

It's one reason why they're two of the best head coaches in the league. They force opponents to play the game the way they want it to be played.

"I think overall, we did a pretty good job," Heyward said, summing this game up. "Could it be better? Yes. But I thought we didn't run away from the fight. We just kept attacking, and we were able to prevail."

The Steelers are now 12-5 in their past 17 games.

Related Content