Steelers run their way into playoff contention

Typically, in a game involving the Cleveland Browns, it is their running game that is the most feared unit heading into the contest.

But given what the Steelers have done in the second half of this season with their rushing attack, you'd better believe the Browns have taken notice.

"We know when you are playing the Steelers it is a physical football game. They do a nice job in the run game – big, physical running backs and a varied scheme," said Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski. "You expect that you are going to have to play a very physical 60-minute game."

That's especially been the case since the Steelers' bye in Week 9.

Prior to the bye week, the Steelers averaged 94.9 yards rushing per game. Since the bye week, they've bumped that up considerably to 146.3 yards rushing per game, going 6-2 in the process.

It's simple to say the Steelers have run their way into playoff contention.

That doesn't happen without a commitment to running the ball better and more often. And that was something offensive coordinator Matt Canada challenged his unit to do during the bye.

"Coach Canada made it an emphasis," left tackle Dan Moore said. "He said, 'We've got to run the ball better. We've got to run the ball more. And we're going to do that.' He's stuck to his word. We've tried to uphold our end of the bargain, as well."

In last Sunday's 16-13 win over the Ravens, that paid off with the Steelers rushing for 198 yards. That total included kneel downs from quarterback Kenny Pickett at the end of both halves, so the Steelers actually broke the 200-yard barrier against the Ravens.

That flipped the script on the Ravens, who had rushed for 215 yards against the Steelers in a 16-14 win Dec. 11. The next task for the Steelers (8-8) will be to do the same to the Browns (7-9) Sunday at Acrisure Stadium in their regular season finale.

Cleveland rushed for 171 yards in a 29-17 victory over the Steelers back on Sept. 22, while the Steelers had 104 yards on the ground in that game.

Sunday's game, which the Steelers need to win to keep their playoff hopes alive, could be decided by which team runs the ball more effectively.

"Running the football this time of year, you get games in December and January that matter the most," Canada said. "You want to be peaking at this time. It's a credit to the offensive line. They want to run the ball better – not necessarily better than the Ravens. But it was a time-of-possession game. It was a team, the Ravens, that try to possess the football. That's what they do. They want to limit possessions. The line took pride in that. Najee took pride in that. And the wide receivers and tight ends did too."

This game could be similar.

The Browns essentially played keep away from the Steelers in the first meeting this season, holding the ball for over 36 minutes.

But as the second half of this season has worn on, the Steelers have won the battle for time of possession more frequently. They're at 31:19 for the season, but in their past three games, that number is at 34:21.

It's more, however, than simply possessing the football. Those sustained drives have to end with touchdowns, particularly in a game in which possessions are limited.

Against the Ravens, the Steelers had seven possessions that didn't involve taking a knee to end a half. Of those, five included the Steelers running 10 or more plays. But they resulted in just one touchdown and four field goal attempts, three of which they made.

"We had five opportunities drive-wise to score, we've got to score touchdowns," Canada said. "It's first-and-goal at the 2, we've got to score a touchdown there. We had first-and-10 at the 15. We had two runs – as well as we ran the ball – we didn't hit those quite as well as we wanted to.

"We've got to score touchdowns. We're happy with the two-minute drives the last two games. It says a lot about (quarterback) Kenny (Pickett). It says a lot about everybody. When we've got to go down and win a game, Kenny's the leader. It says a lot about the whole offense, they stick together. Two really big drives that say a lot about the growth of a really young group."

But the idea is to not need a late drive to win the game.

That could mean leaning even more on Harris and backup Jaylen Warren against the Browns, who allow an average of 4.8 yards per carry.

Harris had his first 100-yard rushing game of the season, going for 111 yards on 22 carries against the Ravens. Warren chipped in 76 yards on 12 attempts.

Harris has averaged 74.1 yards rushing per game since the bye week and now needs 46 yards against the Browns to get to 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons.

Harris was slowed early in the season by a foot injury. But there were some other issues in play, as well, as Harris became accustomed to running behind the Steelers' revamped offensive line.

"I just think there's confidence," Canada said. "All of this is encompassing. Where you are, and the numbers have changed, it's all 11. It's 11 men doing their job. One guy does the wrong thing and the play looks incredibly awful. I think all 11 guys are firing on the same cylinder. That, in turn, develops trust with Naj. He's hitting the hole. He's seeing the hole. I do think it was a little bit of his health. He would say that. He's a tough guy that was playing."

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

The Steelers also have incorporated Warren more and more as the season has worn on. The undrafted rookie's 12 carries against the Ravens were a career-high, eclipsing the 11 he had three weeks ago in a win over the Panthers.

Over the past three games, Warren has 29 carries for 133 yards.

And last Sunday, Canada used a package that included both running backs on the field at the same time for the first time this season, with Harris in the backfield and Warren lining up in the slot.

Warren had a 31-yard carry on a jet sweep that was the Steelers' second-longest run of the season.

That package has been a long time in coming.

"I wish we could have everything. I wish everything was ready to go back in September in the entire offense with all these rookies we're playing," Canada said. "I wish it all had just been that way. Some things evolve over time. Guys are learning."

And perhaps peaking at just the right time.

The Steelers will find out Sunday if they'll get an opportunity to continue their season. They need to beat the Browns and also have losses or ties by the Patriots and Dolphins for that to happen.

If it does, they have a lot of confidence built up in their running game to help spur them into the postseason.

"You have to have productivity to keep wanting to run it," Canada said. "If you're not gaining yards early on, it's hard to (keep doing it). Obviously, that's the plan. That's what we're evolving to. That's what we want to do."