Steps in the right direction

The Steelers put a lot of time, effort and resources toward improving their running game in 2021, but the progress they made was more perceived than statistically apparent.

The Steelers had finished No. 32 in the NFL in rushing and had averaged a league-worst 3.6 yards per carry in 2020.

This season they finished No. 29 in rushing and averaged 3.9 yards per attempt (tied fro 29th).

More steps need to be taken, but Steelers president Art Rooney II still emerged with a different opinion of the team's ability to put its best foot forward via the ground game.

"I would say I feel better about our ability to run the football maybe today than I did this time last year," Rooney assessed. "I think we have some pieces in place."

They also had their moments, if not the consistency they had been seeking.

Following is a look back at some of the more memorable runs from 2021:

No. 5-Dec. 19, Tennessee: Try, Try Again
It took two tries, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was able to nudge the ball over the goal line on a second consecutive attempt from the Titans' 1-yard line late in the third quarter of what eventually became a 19-13 victory over Tennessee.

After getting stuffed for no gain on second-and-goal from the 1 with 3:46 left in the quarter, Roethlisberger was not deterred.

Who says the Steelers don't run the quarterback sneak?

The rushing touchdown was Roethlisberger's first of the season, his first since he managed three in 2018 and the 20th and, as it turned out, final carry across a goal line in Roethlisberger's 18-year career.

No. 4-Nov. 14, Detroit: See Mason Run
The Steelers trailed the then-winless Lions 16-10 after the first possession of the third quarter.

It was at that point quarterback Mason Rudolph, spot-starting for Roethlisberger, took matters into his own hands, and legs.

On first-and-10 from the Steelers' 26, Rudolph lined up under center, executed a play-action fake and then a bootleg right.

Not finding anything to his liking, Rudolph pulled the ball down, avoided pressure and reversed his field.

He kept going all the way back across the formation until he got to what had been the left edge of the formation, and then he turned upfield.

What resulted was a 26-yard gain that jump-started a drive for a field goal that brought the Steelers back to within 16-13 in a game that would eventually end in a 16-16 tie.

Rudolph's rumble ended up as the Steelers; third-longest run of the season.

If you're trying to impress a team looking for mobility in the search for Roethlisberger's successor, there are worse things to put on tape.

No. 3-Jan. 9, at Baltimore: The Idea All Along
Rookie running back Najee Harris' 307th and final carry of the regular season turned out to be one of his most symbolic and most impactful.

Second-and-10 from the Ravens' 31 with 2:13 left in overtime. The Steelers needed to win the game to keep their playoff hopes alive. The safest play was to run the ball to better position kicker Chris Boswell for a game-winning field goal, as the Steelers had tried to do on the previous play (Harris for no gain). But the Ravens knew the Steelers wanted to run the ball, too.

The Steelers ran it, anyway.

Harris responded this time with a 15-yard gain around left end to the Baltimore 16.

Two snaps later Boswell split the uprights and it was over (except for the waiting for the Chargers and Raiders not to play to a tie part of the Steelers' multi-tiered, final weekend playoff scenario).

Given the stakes, the setting and the opponent, the Steelers' 16-13 overtime victory was as satisfying as any they achieved all season.

No. 2-Jan. 3, Cleveland: The Exclamation Point
Third-and-2 from the Cleveland 37, 1:00 left in regulation and the Steelers leading, 19-14. The Browns had just taken their third and final timeout. The objective was to get the first down and run the clock out.

But Harris wasn't willing to settle for just that.

So he took a handoff, ran past the chains and just kept going all the way to the end zone.

The 37-yard touchdown run turned out to be his longest carry of the season.

It capped a 28-carry, 188-yard night for Harris, both season-high totals.

His ability to wear the Browns down and out in the second half (15 attempts, 117 rushing yards) was a particularly impressive component of what became a 26-14 triumph.

No. 1-Dec. 9, at Minnesota: Statement Gain
The spectacular part was the relentless effort, and the refusal to be denied.

Third-and-2 from the Steelers' 33, 5:46 left in the third quarter and the Steelers down, 29-0.

Harris attacked what happened next as if the Super Bowl were at stake.

He took a handoff from Roethlisberger and started working his way through two would-be tacklers 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

Harries next spun out of a third attempt to bring him down and then ran through a fourth defender at the line of scrimmage.

He finally lowered his shoulder and ran through another defender at the line to gain and moved the chains.

Observed NFL Network analyst Troy Aikman: "This might be the greatest 3-yard run I've ever seen."

It kept alive a drive that led to the Steelers' first touchdown and sparked a comeback that came up just short in the end, 36-28.

As far as 3-yard runs are concerned, it's hard to envision a better one.