Tomlin: Bye offered Steelers time for evaluation

Bye weeks in the NFL are a time for players to get away from the daily grind of preparation for the next game.

For coaches, it's a time to evaluate what you're doing, who you're doing it with and all of the other questions that go along with those things.

What those discoveries mean and how they affect the rest of the team's season will begin to be revealed when the Steelers (3-2) come out of their bye week against the Rams (3-3) in Los Angeles on Sunday.

"(I'm) really excited about getting back into competition coming off the bye week," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "(It was) an opportunity for self-analysis in all three phases, what we do well, what we don't do well, strategic things, how we divide the labor up. We went through those things with a fine tooth comb as a staff, spent some time addressing some of those things.

"And then we spent some time looking ahead, not only in terms of the games that are upcoming like like the one this week, but also just kind of trends in the game to have a little bit of a global perspective about some things that are going on where we stack up our place in an effort to provide your proper focus in terms of areas that we need to improve. I think that's a reasonable expectation as you come out of a bye, that opportunity for reflection and self-analysis should be a springboard for better performance, for better strategy for better division of labor."

Tomlin isn't saying what the team learned about itself during the self-analysis period, but if it provides a spark like it did a year ago, the Steelers could be in for bigger and better things in the second half.

The team went into the bye a year ago at 2-6 and averaging less than 100 yards rushing per game. Post-bye, the Steelers made a commitment to their rushing attack and averaged 146.2 yards per game on the ground in the second half, improving their scoring average by more than a touchdown in their final nine games as they went 7-2 after the mid-season break.

That helped improve the team's third-down success to 54 percent in the second half and made things easier on then-rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett.

A similar improvement this season would be a welcome addition for a team that is off to a better start in terms of its record in what appears to be a tight AFC North race. While the Steelers were off last week, Baltimore (4-2), Cleveland (3-2) and Cincinnati (3-3) all won their respective games, leaving the AFC North as the only division in the NFL in which all four teams are at .500 or better.

Also as was the case a year ago, when the Steelers got T.J. Watt back from injured reserve following the bye week, the Steelers will welcome the potential return of a number of injured players following the bye.

Guard James Daniels, tackle Dan Moore Jr., punter Pressley Harvin III and tight end Pat Freiermuth all have missed at least one game due to injury prior to the bye, but have an opportunity to return this week. The Steelers also activated the 21-day window for wide receiver Diontae Johnson and running back Anthony McFarland Jr. on Monday to return from injured reserve.

"It's always a great opportunity to sort some things out from a health standpoint to put some people back toward participation," Tomlin said. "It was for us."

But who participates and who immediately moves back into the starting lineup isn't a given.

Sometimes, self-evaluation is involved. Other times, not.

"Decisions are made by guys like me, day in and day out in this business," Tomlin said. "Some of this is very black-and-white information or some of it is gut-oriented. Some of it is a mix of the two. And that's how it gets done. So I try not to do it specifically with a cookie cutter because you miss opportunities to get better.

"You have variables and unique variables and all circumstances that require analysis. And so I'm comfortable enough in my skin and in my position that I don't make cookie-cutter decisions. I do them on an individual basis."

Getting their shots: Playing time continues to increase for members of the Steelers rookie class, with injuries playing a part in some instances, but creating their own opportunity in others.

First-round pick Broderick Jones started against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 5 with Dan Moore Jr. out injured. While no decision has been made on who will start this week with Moore coming back from his injury, Coach Mike Tomlin liked what he saw from Jones and said the experience is the best teacher.

"The in-helmet perspective of play that you can't get anywhere else but playing," said Tomlin. "He hasn't been deficient in learning in any of the other venues. It's just a process and opportunity."

Defensive lineman Keeanu Benton also falls under the taking advantage of an opportunity umbrella. Benton, one of the Steelers second round draft picks this year, has seen his playing time increase due to the injury to Cameron Heyward.

"That is a young guy that is utilizing all of his avenues to get better," said Tomlin. "The opportunity avenue has increased for him because of Cam Heyward's injury. I think with more exposure, he is playing more consistently and getting more comfortable. I am excited about the continued trajectory of that."

Fellow second-round pick Joey Porter Jr. was utilized in key situations against the Ravens, and the reason wasn't because of injuries, but because of what he is showing.

"With each passing week, we get an understanding of what the young guys are capable of," said Tomlin. "We're gaining a better understanding, particularly at the early portions of the year about how to best divide our labor up in an effort to win a game. We did against the Baltimore Ravens what we thought was necessary to win that game and will continue to do so."

Tomlin envisions many of the young players seeing more playing time as they progress.

"There are several variables at play," said Tomlin. "It's what they do and the quality in which they do it. It's also the opportunity. Such is always the case in team play. Things and decisions don't happen in a vacuum.

"We challenge all of these guys to not be patient. This is not a patient persons' business. We ask them to work while they wait for their opportunity and then put their readiness on display."

No secret: The Steelers have the potential to get a huge offensive weapon back this week as receiver Diontae Johnson was cleared to return to practice on Monday.

Johnson was placed on the Reserve/Injured List after suffering a hamstring injury against the San Francisco 49ers in the season opener.

Coach Mike Tomlin said Johnson's work during the week in practice and his overall conditioning will play a role in whether he is activated this week or further down the road, as the team has a 21-day window to make a decision.

Johnson had three receptions for 48 yards against the 49ers before leaving the game in the third quarter. He said last week he is 100 percent and getting him back gives the Steelers a weapon the offense would welcome. 

"Expert route running," said Tomlin of what he brings. "He is a route runner. Vertical, non-vertical. He can create separation at break points.

"That is his distinguishing trait, but that is no secret."

Asked if his presence could help quarterback Kenny Pickett, especially early in games, Tomlin's answer was simple. 

"Very much," he said.