Steelers looking for explosive runs as well as passes

Seldom in the NFL do things get blocked up perfectly. After all, the other team is composed of paid professionals, as well, and as such, they know all the tricks on ways to defeat blocks.

But when things are blocked the way they're drawn up, good things tend to happen.

Such was the case with Jaylen Warren's 62-yard touchdown run against in Saturday night's 27-15 preseason win by the Steelers over the Buffalo Bills.

The line did its job up front creating a lane through which Warren could burst. He then picked up a block from wide receiver Diontae Johnson on the outside. From there, it was up to Warren to make Bills Pro Bowl safety Jordan Poyer miss before he was off to the races.

"Big runs occur when the wideouts block," Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada said Monday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "Obviously, up front the linemen their job is to give them a couple yards. It's the back's job to maybe get through the line. The big ones happen when what occurred a couple nights ago happen. It was really well blocked up front. Jaylen made a nice cut. And then (Johnson) finished it on the corner and then it went back to Jaylen and a one-on-one matchup and he finished it. Everybody's got to do their job."

The Steelers have been harping on getting more explosive plays out of their offense in 2023. And many have taken that to mean in the passing game. But creating more explosive plays in the running game is an emphasis, as well.

To do that, the wide receivers have to block.

"Coach (Mike Tomlin) had kind of been on me about blocking downfield, so I wanted to show him I can block a little," Johnson said. "It's something I tried to work on during camp this year. Last year, as well. It's not like I can't block. I was just trying to put it on film.

"I feel like I have improved. I always could block. I think it was me just wanting to do it, sometimes. I can do it. That's the mindset I've always had."

The running backs also have to be healthy, something that didn't happen in 2022 coming out of training camp, when Najee Harris suffered a foot injury that limited his effectiveness early in the season.

Harris averaged 3.3 yards per carry before the Steelers' bye in Week 8. After, that picked up to 4.1 yards per attempt, bolstered by more chunk runs.

The Steelers' longest run in 2022 was a 36-yard run by Harris. Warren also had a run of 31 yards. But even though the Steelers averaged 146 yards per game on the ground over the course of the second half of last season and 122 yards overall, the chunk plays in the running game were too few and too far between.

The Steelers had 53 runs of 10 or more yards in 2022, just eight, however, of 20 or more.

But the Steelers were seventh in the NFL last season in rushing against 8-man-or-more boxes, where the opponent placed an additional defender near the line of scrimmage to slow down the running game. Despite that, the Steelers had the second-best successful run rate against 8-man boxes.

No matter how talented the backs and receivers happen to be, everything revolves around how the line creates space in those situations.

"I think we'll go as far as our line takes us," Canada said. "We got a lot of really good talent on the edge and skill players and Pat (Freiermuth) can do a lot at tight end and Darnell (Washington) is coming in and Connor (Heyward) can do a lot of things. All that's great. You got to block them."

Do that, and the Steelers will create more of those explosive plays.

Harris has 694 touches in his first two seasons (579 carries and 115 receptions), the most in the NFL since he entered the league as a rookie in 2021. 

The Steelers have managed Harris' workload in the preseason, getting him just three touches thus far. But that's been by design. They also haven't exposed Warren much in the preseason, either.

The first-team offense ran just seven plays against the Bills – scoring two touchdowns – before exiting the game. Harris and Warren were part of that and didn't play another snap after the first-team offense departed.

But their roles are pretty clearly defined. Harris is the lead back, with Warren playing a third-down role and getting sprinkled in occasionally on first and second downs, as well.

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"Naj is our 1, there's no doubt about that," Canada said. "We're protecting him to get him to that point. We're never going to lock ourselves into what it's going to be. I don't think that's fair to anybody. But we're certainly planning on Najee being Najee when we start the regular season."

The idea is to get both of their top backs into the regular season healthy and ready to create those big plays in the running game when the opportunity presents itself.

And the key is to be able to do that starting Week 1 against the 49ers at Acrisure Stadium Sept. 10.

"We ran the football quite a bit and now Naj was a big big part of it, not that Jaylen wasn't but your body can take so much, and we feel like he's done a lot and we want to get him to the show," Canada said. "And so it's been a systematic plan to keep him upright and at the same time getting ready to play and that's a fine balance for everybody."