Lolley's 10 Thoughts: Steelers' rushing attack no accident

Heading into Sunday's game at Acrisure Stadium against the Green Bay Packers, the Steelers had a directive offensively from head coach Mike Tomlin.

Run. The. Ball.

Consider the mission accomplished.

The Steelers ran for a season-high 205 yards on 36 attempts, punishing the Packers defense time and again.

And it didn't matter the situation or down and distance. The Steelers stuck with their rushing attack, having quarterback Kenny Pickett attempt just 23 passes.

"That was something that Tomlin said early in the week, he wasn't going to waver away from the run," left tackle Dan Moore said after the Steelers recorded their 23-19 victory here at Acrisure Stadium to improve to 6-3.

"Even if they had guys in the backfield, we were going to continue to hammer them in the running game. We knew as an offensive line we had to execute."

Jaylen Warren had a career-high 101 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. Najee Harris had 82 yards and a touchdown on 16 attempts.

And the Steelers were consistent with it. They had 100 rushing yards on 20 carries in the first half and 105 yards on 16 attempts in the second half.

"The MVP is the o-line," said Harris. "We're scoring on the first drives now two weeks in a row, it's all on the o-line."

When reminded the Steelers not only scored for the second consecutive week on their opening drive, but they also scored a touchdown on their second possession in this game, as well, Harris' reply was the same.

"Yeah. Look at that, the o-line," he said.

Harris and Warren have been meeting with the offensive line in recent weeks and talking about what runs they like and what runs the offensive line likes.

Those meetings have paid dividends the past two weeks, as the Steelers have rushed for their season-best totals in each of the past two weeks, gaining 166 yards last week in a win over the Titans before steamrolling the Packers Sunday.

"It's something we've been looking forward to. We've just got to keep it rolling. That's the expectation, to be honest," said Moore. "We wanted to come in and make a statement this week running the ball. We thought this was a good week to do it based off game plan. We just went out there and executed. But that's got to be the expectation every week."

It's easy to point to rookie Broderick Jones being inserted into the starting lineup at right tackle as the reason this has happened. But that's probably being a little too simplistic about it.

There does, however, seem to be more of a mentality to get linemen on the move more often, something that not only fits Jones' style, but that of others on that line, as well.

"Well, the o-line likes that. Really, it's what plays they like," said Harris. "They like pulling, so we like them pulling, too. They like it, so we like it."

Whatever the reason, it's working. And there's no reason to go away from it.

It was the formula for the Steelers that spurred their 7-2 finish to last season, as well.

The Steelers just didn't wait until their final nine games to find their offensive identity as they did a year ago. This time around, they found it in Week 7.

And they plan on sticking with it.

"For sure," said Harris of that ground-and-pound mentality. "We kind of know our identity as a run team now. We know what that is."

Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 10 game against the Green Bay Packers at Acrisure Stadium

• If that helps keep a defense that is leaking badly off the field, all the better.

For the second consecutive week, the Steelers lost one of their inside linebackers early in the game, this time seeing Kwon Alexander go down with what Tomlin deemed a "serious lower body injury."

The same thing happened to Cole Holcomb last week. And the Steelers also have been without All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick the past two games – though there's some expectation he'll be back for next Sunday's game at Cleveland.

But the Steelers finished this game off with safety Keanu Neal playing inside linebacker in the dime defense, with Elijah Riley and practice squad callup Trenton Thompson on the field.

The moving pieces led to some miscommunications at times. But when the team needed a play, it got one.

Actually, it got two.

First came Patrick Peterson tipping a pass in the end zone intended for Christian Watson up in the air and into the waiting arms of Neal.

Then, it was fellow safety Damontae Kazee picking off Jordan Love at the goal line again on the game's final play.

"Somebody is making a play," said defensive lineman and defensive captain Cam Heyward. "We don't know where it's coming from, but we all have to be prepared to make that play."

That mentality comes from the top down. And it's something that's stressed from Day 1 by Tomlin.

If you're on the field, you're expected to make a play.

"We find ways to lean on each other," said Peterson. "We preach and we talk about getting the ball out. That's just the culture around here. We just find ways to make those timely plays to help our team win the ballgame.

"We just find a way to stick together. And then just the continuity that we have here with Coach Tomlin and (defensive coordinator Teryl Austin) T.A. and the guys that have been around here that understand what Coach Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers are all about."

• The Steelers needed that second interception because of a curious offensive pass interference penalty called on diminutive wide receiver Calvin Austin III after Neal's interception.

On third-and-9 just after the two-minute warning, the Steelers were aggressive and Kenny Pickett completed a 28-yard pass to George Pickens that should have allowed the Steelers to kneel out the rest of the clock.

But Austin was called for offensive pass interference for knocking the defensive back covering Pickens to the ground. Replays showed Austin was running his route and corner Carrington Valentine, who was beating by Pickens off the line of scrimmage, slowed and ran into him, but the penalty went against Austin, who at 162 pounds, knocked Valentine to the ground.

"I kind of broke on my route and I'm on my path and he gathered into my path," said Austin. "I've got to do a better job of trying to avoid contact and not even put our defense in that position. That could have been game right there with G making that catch. It's just me learning."

But Austin said it wasn't something that was planned as a pick. He and Pickens were just running crossing routes from opposite side of the formation.

"I saw him at the last second. I caught him with my foot," Austin said. "It was one of those you have to look at, study and remember so that you're not in that position again. You don't ever want to put your defense back on the field."

• The Steelers scored touchdowns on their first two possessions, going nine and 11 plays to do so. They got a field goal on their third possession.

But the second half of this game turned into a defensive struggle or sorts.

The Packers had two field goal drives in the third quarter, but saw their four fourth quarter possessions end with a three-and-out, a second possession where they got one first down before punting and interceptions on their final two possessions.

They did hit a few big passes on those final two possessions, but it's questionable whether that would have happened with Fitzpatrick roaming the secondary.

As for the Steelers, the offensive output in the second half wasn't great, but they got their chunk plays in the run game.

In the end, this game once again turned into a game played the way the Steelers wanted to play it – like it was a rock fight.

"We can't shy away from it," Heyward said of how the Steelers force opponents to play the way they want them to play. "You've got to learn how to win and this is what we're doing right now."

The veterans know that. They've become accustomed to winning games ugly.

Even the younger veterans.

"It's been like that three years for me. I'm so used to it," said Harris. "I don't realize it sometimes. It's just how we are since I've been here."

And that has trickled down to even the rookies on the roster going through this for the first time. The Steelers are now 6-0 in games decided by one score this season.

They're even starting to enjoy it.

"It's dope because it keeps you on the edge the entire time," said rookie defensive lineman Keeanu Benton. "We never have a two-score game with a minute left for something like that. It's close. This is why I started playing football, for this thrill, this competition, this determination I see from everybody, the camaraderie I see from everybody. You see everybody getting up when it's a close game like that. In my opinion, it's better than blowout games. You're out there competing to the last whistle."

• With the Browns winning in Baltimore on Sunday and the Bengals losing at home to the Texans, the Steelers are now just a half-game behind the Ravens for first place in the AFC North.

The interesting thing is that Baltimore hosts Cincinnati Thursday night before the Steelers travel to Cleveland on Sunday.

If the Bengals lose, they're in deep trouble. They'll have five losses – all within the AFC – and be 0-3 in the AFC North.

If the Bengals win, the winner of Sunday's game between the Steelers and Browns would move a half-game ahead of the Ravens into first place in the AFC North standings.

• Does offensive coordinator Matt Canada being on the sideline make a difference?

Well, the Steelers have had their two best rushing performances the past two weeks. And they've scored on their opening possession of the game in each of those games.

But the reality is that the players don't even think about it – until they do.

"After I scored that touchdown and I was getting high-fives from everyone and he hugged me," said Harris. "And I was like, 'I forgot you were down here on the sideline.' It's cool having Matt Canada down there. He's going around and asking what we like and what we see, runs here. He's giving us suggestions and telling us why we ran a certain play."

If that's what makes things work better, so be it.

• Pickett's numbers weren't anything special. He completed 14 of 23 passes for 126 yards and had four carries for 16 yards, including an 11-yard scramble for a first down.

But he did what the Steelers needed him to do in this game. He managed the game well, picked up a couple of first downs running the ball and didn't turn it over – again.

Pickett now has 147 consecutive passes without an interception.

And while fellow young quarterback Jordan Love made some big throws at times, he also threw two interceptions at the end of the game.

Winning is more important than putting up fantasy football numbers.

"We had opportunities, just didn't connect on them," Pickett said of putting up more passing yards. "Had the one down the left side to (Diontae Johnson). Had a good back shoulder to George, which was a really good play for us, just wish we had some more opportunities to do so, but we got the win, that's the most important thing."

The Steelers are now 13-5 in their past 18 games. They're 5-1 this season when Pickett starts and finishes the game.

Winning isn't an accident.

• Green Bay's one-two punch of Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillion is good. But it's recognized around the league as such.

It might be time for people to start recognizing the Steelers' one-two punch of Harris and Warren as one of the top running back duos in the league.

"That is a game saver," said Heyward. "I like to be on the sidelines more and more. You get excited about the way our offense is progressing. That two-headed monster over there is special."

• Benton finished this game with six tackles and two quarterback hits. His pressure helped T.J. Watt get the Steelers' lone sack in this game.

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

You'd like to see more pressure from the defense as a whole, but the Packers did a nice job of keeping the Steelers off balance defensively with their running game.

But Benton, a Wisconsin product like Watt, did his part and just keeps getting better and better. With nose tackle Montravius Adams out with an ankle injury, Sunday marked his first career start.

"I feel like I handled it well," Benton said. "I don't know if I got as many snaps as last week, but I feel like I could have handled more. I felt well and conditioned."

• With the injuries now to Holcomb and Alexander, the Steelers have gone from having a wealth of riches at the inside linebacker position, to having Elandon Roberts, Mark Robinson and little depth.

That's the way things go in the NFL. You have depth – until you don't.

"I didn't really know what happened until I saw (Alexander) on the ground," said Roberts, who took over duties as the team's defensive play caller after that. "Yeah, it changed. But I'm used to the green dot. I've been the green dot in my career. So it was time to go."

But the Steelers now have lost both of their every-down linebackers. They like Robinson's development. He and Roberts are big-time downhill players.

The Steelers, however, are going to have to figure something out in terms of obvious passing downs.

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