Monday night's game vs. the Browns long will be remembered as Ben Roethlisberger's final performance at Heinz Field, but of more potential significance to these Steelers will be if that 26-14 victory over Cleveland comes to be recognized as a turning point for the Steelers' running attack.
After a 2020 season in which the Steelers finished last in the NFL in rushing for the first time in the Super Bowl era, the team hired a new offensive coordinator, spent a first-round pick on the top running back prospect in the draft, and re-tooled the offensive line. While those moves seemed necessary and making them all at once seemed logical, the impact of them was neither immediate nor profound.
In the first four games of this regular season, the Steelers rushed for 75, 39, 45, and 62 yards. Their first 100-yard rushing game came on Oct. 10 vs. Denver at Heinz Field (147 yards), the same afternoon when Harris recorded his first 100-yard game as a pro (122 yards). But even this didn't serve as a breakthrough, because there was little consistency by the units responsible for the running of the ball and even though Harris clearly was a star in the making his rushing totals were not showing steady incremental increases.
Sometimes it seemed as though the Steeles were being handled on the line of scrimmage; sometimes it seemed as though the plays called had Harris running east-west too often rather than north-south; and sometimes the downfield blocking and perimeter blocking wasn't sufficiently solid to allow Harris to get beyond the line of scrimmage before encountering multiple defenders.
It almost seemed as though some of Harris' best runs gained only a couple of yards because he had to do so much fighting just to get back to the line of scrimmage.
Against the Browns on Monday night, the Steelers running game turned in its best and most productive performance of this regular season. On a night when the passing attack spent most of the game within a yard or two of the line of scrimmage, when Ben Roethlisberger completed 52.2 percent of his passes for an average of 2.8 yards per attempt and finished with a passer rating of 56.2 – all of which were awful numbers for him – the Steelers finished with 190 yards rushing and averaged 6.1 yards per attempt. Harris had his best day as a pro with 188 yards rushing, a 6.7 average, and a 37-yard touchdown run that iced the victory.
"I can't say enough about the way the front battled on offense, and the way our runner battled on offense," said Coach Mike Tomlin during his weekly news conference on Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "You know, it was tough sledding at times. We maintained our commitment. Najee was special to be quite honest. He was better as the game wore on, the number of yards that he picked up after contact, the way he confronted would-be tacklers in an aggressive manner and in a competitive manner was helpful and inspiring to all of us. And so I think those are some of the critical things that produced the victory."
There also were a couple of changes forced on the unit by factors beyond its control. Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm accepted a job at the University of Oregon and Tomlin released him to join his new team a little over a week ago. And when rookie center Kendrick Green injured a calf during a Dec. 26 loss to the Chiefs in Kansas City, he was replaced in the starting lineup by J.C. Hassenauer.
"I liked a lot of what I saw (Monday night) not only in his play, but in his communication," said Tomlin about Hassenauer. "He did a nice job of communicating with the group and in identifying people both in the run and in the pass. We'll make those decisions as we determine availability this week. Like I mentioned last week, Kendrick Green is just too young of a guy to get on a moving train at the latter part of the week, so the decision (to start Hassenauer) was easy for us. It'll probably be more difficult for us this week. (Green) will probably have a level of readiness that happens earlier in the week this week, but we'll make the decisions that are best for us in terms of putting ourselves in position to have a good offensive output and thus win the game."
And with Klemm now at Oregon, assistant offensive line coach Chris Morgan was moved up to assume Klemm's duties for the rest of this season, at which time Tomlin will make a decision on a permanent replacement.
"You know, I thought he had a tremendous impact, but I don't want to overstate it," said Tomlin about Morgan's first full week in the job. "He ran the offensive line room and made critical decisions regarding the division of labor and in the formulation of the plan. He'll do similar things this week. We had a great run day (against the Browns), but that's just a day. I'm looking forward to watching his contributions and our plan develop this week and add to that body of work."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE:
"From a health standpoint, we don't have a lot of clarity as we sit here (Tuesday). We're still assessing the things that transpired Monday night in-stadium, some of those being Dan Moore with an ankle injury, Trai Turner with a knee injury, Terrell Edmonds with a groin. We'll monitor those guys and let their participation (in practice) and the quality of their participation be our guide in terms of planning as we push through the week. But we couple them with some guys who are out or limited during the course of last week with injury, guys such as Kendrick Green (calf), for example, and other COVID guys. Figuring out their levels of readiness, conditioning, in finding the appropriate equation for their inclusion will be a big component of this week's prep."