Resurgent running game faces test in Colts

The rubber could hit the road Monday night when the Steelers travel to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis to face the Colts when it comes to the team's resurgent running game.

Over the past three games, the Steelers have averaged 154.3 yards per game on the ground, aided greatly by a 217-yard effort in a 20-10 win over the Saints Nov. 13.

Some of that has been supplemented by rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett's running. Over the past three games, Pickett has rushed for 102 yards on his own.

But a big part of the equation has been a resurgence by running back Najee Harris.

After being held to no rushing yards on four first-half carries Oct. 30 in a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, Harris has gained 221 yards on his past 44 rushing attempts, a 5.0-yards per carry average that far exceeds the 3.3 yards per attempt he had been averaging earlier in the season.

That will be tested greatly when the Steelers (3-7) play the Colts (4-6-1) Monday night. Indianapolis allows just 3.8 yards per rushing attempt this season, making the Colts one of the two teams in the NFL who give up fewer yards per attempt than the Steelers, who allow 3.9.

"Our running game is getting better, but we're playing one of the highest-ranked defenses in the league this week," Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada said Thursday at the UPMC-Rooney Sports Complex. "They're good at everything. It will be a real challenge for us."

The Steelers' offensive line has obviously played a role in the team's success moving the ball on the ground of late. Despite center Mason Cole missing some time in games this season because of a foot issue, the Steelers have had the same five linemen start each of their 10 games, making them one of the few teams in the league to have that consistency up front.

That's big for a young line.

But Harris has also shown some extra burst after being slowed early in the season by a Lisfranc injury suffered in training camp. The second-year running back hasn't missed any significant time because of the issue, but looked tentative at times.

Now, according to Canada, Harris has been more decisive.

"It's a combination of everything," Canada said. "The line is gelling. They're getting work together. The tight ends are doing a good job. I think Najee is back to full strength. He'd probably tell you that. You see a difference in his approach as he attacks the line and those things. It's a combination of everything. But it's moving in the direction we want it the last couple of weeks."

Establishing that running game should help Pickett be more effective down the stretch.

It's no coincidence that the rookie quarterback hasn't turned the ball over the past two weeks with the running game becoming more effective.

Harris has been most effective running on first downs this season, averaging 3.9 yards per attempt on 92 first-down carries this season. He's recorded a first down on 11 of those carries, meaning 12 percent of his first-down runs have gone for a first down.

Opponents have to start to defend things a little differently when a team is running the ball well.

"As you continue to do that, people are concerned with stopping the run," Canada said. "You start to get more of those one-high looks that you're hunting for and you get more one-on-one looks on the outside, which obviously, we're trying to get."

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The idea is to get that offensive balance all teams desire to have. Ideally, you want to be able to run the ball when you want to run it and throw it when you desire to throw it.

The idea is not to simply allow the defense to dictate how you play.

"We've got to continue to be balanced and be sound on first and second downs. We study all of those things," Canada said. "We've got to continue to run the football on first and second down. We haven't been heavy. We're not running it 70 percent of the time. If we're doing that, it's because you want to run the ball, you want to control the clock. There's complimentary football that sometimes you want to get and go do against a high-powered offense. It just depends."