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Steelers intent on getting run game working

Typically, teams that are winning wind up rushing for a bunch of yards, the idea being that if you're ahead in a game, you're continuing to rely on your rushing attack to eat up the clock.

But the Steelers' 23-20 overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals last weekend was an anomaly when it comes to that theory. Though they led 17-3 midway through the second quarter and never trailed against the Bengals, they rushed for just 75 yards in the game, with half of that coming from wide receiver Chase Claypool on jet sweeps.

As a result, the Steelers held the football for just over 26 minutes in a game that wasn't decided until Chris Boswell's winning field goal sailed through the uprights with no time remaining in overtime.

That left the Steelers defense on the field for nearly 44 minutes in the 70-minute game.

Fixing that time of possession issue – and running the football more effectively – has been a focus for the Steelers offense this week as the team prepares to host the New England Patriots in its home opener Sunday at Acrisure Stadium.

"We have to call more runs to be better at it," Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada said Thursday at the UPMC-Rooney Sports Complex. "We'd like some of those 2-yard gains to be 4-yard gains. Whatever you want to say, we got it to third-and-manageable, and then we didn't have a high enough percentage.

"Obviously, we've got to run it better, make 2 yards 4 yards and 6 yards, etcetera, etcetera. The bottom line is that we've got to have more opportunities."

The Steelers prepare for the Week 2 matchup against the New England Patriots

Star running back Najee Harris had just four carries for 6 yards in the first half against the Bengals, finishing with 23 yards on 10 rushing attempts before leaving the game with 1:51 remaining in regulation following a carry for a 2-yard loss with a foot injury.

His backup, rookie Jaylen Warren, had three carries for 7 yards.

That's 13 carries for 30 yards from the team's primary runners. And Canada knows that won't be good enough moving forward.

But he also knows that Harris had an 11-yard run in the second half, and things might have been different with the running game – had the Steelers been able to stick with it more.

"We were 4 out of 15 on third downs," Canada said. "Out of those 15 third downs, 9 of them were third-and-5 or less. That's what you want. We have to execute better there.

"I think we had two of those that were caught short of the line to gain. Two of those, we took a shot and didn't quite get. Two of those, we had communication issues. We've got to be better on third downs and then … a lot of those things will occur if we had been better on third down to keep drives alive. If we do those things, we stay on the field longer and a multitude of the things are different."

Things might not get much easier against the Patriots. Despite losing its opener, 20-7, against the Dolphins in Miami last week, New England allowed just 65 rushing yards on 23 carries. Chase Edmunds led the Dolphins with 25 rushing yards on 12 carries.

The Patriots run a lot of five-man defensive fronts, making it difficult to run the ball against so many big bodies.

"Is there a team that doesn't have big bodies in the middle," Steelers center Mason Cole joked. "They've all got big bodies. The history of New England, you know they're going to be really solid and that's the strength of their defense. It's going to be a good challenge for us. We've got to own up to it."

The Steelers have had some success running the ball against the Patriots in recent meetings. In their last five regular season games against New England, the Steelers have averaged 112.2 yards rushing in those contests.

They would take something similar – if not more – in this matchup.

"I think we've got to be more successful on the ground," Cole said. "We have to get this run game going. We've got to trust it. We've got to rely on it, and it falls on us. When they call a run, we've got to make it happen. We've got to get Najee loose."