Running game takes a step forward

The final score is all that really matters, that's the bottom line, because in the NFL it's about wins and losses. But along the way to those wins or losses, there is progress or regression, and those elements also can be significant when taken in the context of a 17-game regular season spread out of 18 consecutive weeks.

"We're really disappointed with where we are in terms of being 1-3, but that's where we are," said Coach Mike Tomlin on Tuesday at the start of his weekly news conference at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

Tomlin continued, "We've earned that (record), and we're excited about rectifying that, and by rectifying it I mean working this week to improve and getting back into the stadium and pitting our talents vs. an opponent."

That opponent will be the 3-1 Denver Broncos, currently in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC West with the Raiders and Chargers. One of the apparent mismatches within that scheduled 1 p.m. game at Heinz Field would appear to be the Steelers rushing offense vs. the Broncos run defense. The Steelers are averaging an NFL-low 55.3 rushing yards per game, and their 3.3 per carry average is 30th in the league after four games. The Broncos run defense is allowing 70 yards per game (fifth in the league), and Denver's defense is sixth by allowing 3.5 yards per attempt.

But Tomlin said he is seeing some progress being made by his rushing offense.

"(That was) one of the things that I thought we did better, because you always do some things well and you do some things not as well, regardless of the outcome of the game, and oftentimes the emotions of the moment don't allow you to see it," said Tomlin. "In a review of the tape, I thought we took a step in regards to our run game in Green Bay. I thought we eliminated some negativity in terms of negative yardage plays.

"I thought we played cleaner from a technical standpoint. That was displayed on tape, but it's also displayed by a reduction in penalties, particularly in the run game and that's critical for us. You're getting run game penalties, holding penalties, that essentially kill drives. We had some of those in recent weeks, and we cut down on those in Green Bay and that was significant."

The Steelers finished the game against the Packers with 62 yards on 16 carries (3.9 average) with Najee Harris carrying 15 times for all 62 of the yards. On his only carry, Benny Snell was stopped for no gain, and the only time Harris lost yardage was on a run for a 2-yard loss in the second half.

When it came to penalties, the Steelers were flagged just once for offensive holding, and Dan Moore Jr. was identified as the culprit on that play.

"I also thought that we ran the ball effectively in situational play – short-yardage and goal-line," said Tomlin. "And so, those are good building blocks for us as we move forward. We didn't get enough quantity of runs, and oftentimes that's dictated by other variables, such as possession-down conversion rate, possession of the ball, the score of the game, etc. We've got to continually work to position ourselves so that we get more attempts so that we have more balance over the course of 60 minutes, but I thought it was a significant step in terms of what we did, specifically in the run game."

Through the first four games of this season, the run game has been synonymous with Najee Harris, because the rookie has 55 of the team's 66 total attempts and 185 of the 221 rushing yards amassed by the team. Of the yardage total by players other than Harris, 25 have come on runs by wide receivers Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster, and the other 10 on scrambles by Ben Roethlisberger.

"I'm encouraged and excited about his continual development and the progression of that development," said Tomlin about Harris, who also leads the team with 26 catches, and his 178 receiving yards is second to Diontae Johnson's 233. "He's good. We've seen that, but he's continually getting better and that has been on display throughout the first four games of the season, and I think it's reasonable to expect that to continue. This guy's unbelievably talented. He's a competitor. I like his preparation. He's passionate about football. I'm excited about what the near future and the future in general holds for him."

"Zach Banner came back to work last week. We'll continue to monitor his work. We're within that 21-day window where we have an opportunity to make a decision about whether or not to activate him. The quantity of his work will determine that, and also the quality of that work will determine that. We'll find ways to infuse him into the process and get a sense of where he is. Some of the guys who missed time last week, we anticipate them working their way back to us, or at least having an opportunity to (work their way back to us). Chuks Okorafor (concussion) and Chase Claypool (hamstring) being two of those. Some of the in-game guys (who were injured), I know less about. Cam Sutton and his groin; Kevin Dotson and his hip. Ben also has some hip issues relative to play. We'll let their practice participation be our guide in terms of their availability, and I'm sure we'll gain greater clarity as we push through the week in regards to those people."