Steelers hope to keep ground game momentum going

When the Steelers added Mitch Trubisky in free agency and selected Kenny Pickett in the first round of the NFL Draft, they knew they were adding a mobility factor to the quarterback position they hadn't had in several years.

In Sunday's 20-10 win over the New Orleans Saints, the fruits of that added mobility at the position showed themselves as Pickett rushed for a career-high 51 yards on eight attempts and the Steelers had their best rushing day since gaining 240 yards against Buffalo in 2016.

They also got 99 yards on 20 carries from Najee Harris and 37 on nine attempts from Jaylen Warren as the offensive line got a significant push throughout the game against the Saints.

"I thought Naj ran well. I thought our line ran off the ball," Mike Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly press conference at the UPMC-Rooney Sports Complex.

"I thought we got hats on hats. I thought Jaylen was solid, as well. The prudent use of quarterback mobility added to that. Kenny did a nice job running and extending while taking care of the football while doing so. That teed up possession downs. At times, it kept us out of third-down situations, just being able to possess the ball. Time of possession reflected that."

The Steelers held the ball for nearly 39 minutes in the game, converting 9 of 17 third downs and adding a fourth down conversion to the equation.

The opposing team will have a tough time scoring if it's not on the field.

"The best defense is one that's standing on the sideline," Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward said Sunday after the team improved to 3-6.

That certainly wasn't the case the last time the Steelers faced this week's opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals (5-4), in Week 1.

The Bengals ran 91 plays in that game to 64 for the Steelers and held the ball for 43:43 compared just over 26 minutes for Pittsburgh. But the Steelers came away with a 23-20 overtime win because they forced five turnovers, blocked a PAT attempt and generally disrupted the game with their defense.

But running the ball and controlling the game that way has become more en vogue again in today's NFL.

Currently 15 teams are averaging 120 or more yards rushing per game, the most in nearly two decades if this holds up over the course of the season.

And quarterback mobility has become a big part of that. The seven leading rushing teams in the NFL this season have all gotten 178 or more yards out of the quarterback position on the ground.

The Steelers, who got just 58 rushing yards out of the quarterback position in 2021, 53 of which came from backup Mason Rudolph, haven't had that be a part of their attack in quite some time. Ben Roethlisberger hadn't gained more than 172 yards rushing in a season since 2010.

Just don't expect the Steelers, who are now averaging 108.4 rushing yards per game this season after their outburst Sunday, to start designing a bunch of plays that call for Pickett to run the ball – outside of quarterback sneaks.

"I think every time I say quarterback mobility, I say the prudent use of quarterback mobility," Tomlin said. "I do so intentionally because there is risk associated with that. And risk is something we all weigh. Any of us that have mobility at the quarterback position, that's a component of the equation each and every week. Mobility is a good thing, but when and how to use it while managing the risk component of it is also an element of the equation."

More important to Tomlin is being able to line up and run the ball when the Steelers want to do so. And the team has gained some momentum there, rushing for 361 yards in its past two games.

The offensive line, which included two new starters in center Mason Cole and guard James Daniels at the start of the season, might be starting to come together as a run blocking unit.

"Just the nature in which they put four hands on people. The movement we're getting when we choose to double (team), and the understanding of the timing of when to come off and when to not come off double teams," Tomlin said when asked where he's seen improvement from that group. 

"That's just born out of cooperative work, one man working with another. It's been fun to watch the cohesion come together between (James Daniels) and Chuks (Okorafor), for example. But that has to happen for a right guard and right tackle. Oftentimes, they're double teaming B-gap players, come together and deal with the linebackers, however they show themselves. I just see collective growth and development in some of the work at that position."

It's a positive sign moving forward with this season.

The Bengals limited the Steelers to 75 yards on 22 carries in that season-opening win, so Sunday's meeting will be a good litmus test to see how far the running game as a whole has come.

Not that the offensive line is looking for any kudos for that.

"They're not a group that looks for acknowledgement. They understood the type of attention that was going to be on them because so many of them were knew and because the collective development was going to be a process," Tomlin said. "In the midst of that, we needed to be productive enough and show resolve and collective commitment. They've done that. And as long as they continue to do that, it's reasonable to expect the growth and development to continue in all areas, not just the run game."

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

T*hings looking up for Fitzpatrick:* Minkah Fitzpatrick missed last Sunday's win over the Saints after undergoing an appendectomy on Saturday.

Veteran Damontae Kazee, who was returning from the Reserve/Injured List, started in his place.

But Tomlin said there's a solid chance Fitzpatrick could be available this week against the Bengals.

"Reports regarding Minkah and his inclusion this week are really positive. I know he has already been here and run today," Tomlin said. "I saw him Sunday at the stadium, and Minkah wanted to play on Sunday. Obviously that was not the appropriate to do, but that's the mentality that he brings. Often times, when you're talking about injury or lack of availability, you're attitude has a lot to do with it. We're really optimistic about him."

Tomlin said Harris (knee soreness) an guard Kevin Dotson (hip) might be slowed early in the week, but are expected to play Sunday. Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (hamstring) will continue to be monitored.

W*att's presence felt:* Like Kazee, linebacker T.J. Watt returned off the Reserve/Injured List Sunday. And though Watt had four tackles, including one for a loss, and did not record a sack – just missing one on which Andy Dalton scrambled for a one-yard gain, the presence of reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year had a positive effect on the defense.

The Steelers allowed a season-low 186 yards in the game.

"There's an intangible quality to players like him," Tomlin acknowledged. "They bring more than their presence and their playmaking. They instill confidence in those around them. That is a very real thing. You can't necessarily measure it. But as somebody who has been in this business, I acknowledge that it is real."