The typical agenda for an in-season Mike Tomlin news conference is consistent, if unofficial, and it's a reflection of the man. Never one to ease into issues or hope they aren't brought up, Tomlin usually wades right into the week's top topics, whatever those might be, in his opening statement.
Since injuries are such a significant factor in how each NFL regular season unfolds, Tomlin's update on his team's health is dealt with early. In this unique 2020, there is another health threat, and that comes COVID-19, and so he also dives into that, with Tuesday's update having to do with the decision to continue conducting the week's business of preparing for the Jacksonville Jaguars remotely except for walk-throughs and practices, which will be held at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Then, Tomlin brought up this:
"The biggest significant component or analysis or critique of the game (against the Bengals) is our ineffective running game, and we've spent a lot of time thinking and talking about that in an effort to move forward," said Tomlin. "One of the things I'll acknowledge is as a team you always go through lulls in the season where components of your play are lacking, and it requires a re-center of energy and focus and attention. I believe that's where we are in regards to the run game right now, so we'll get about that task this week.
"The only thing that's perfect about our team is our record. We acknowledge that. There always will be things we need to work on. The last several weeks, for example, our pass defense, our third-down conversion defense was lacking. I think we spent some time talking about it (during these news conferences), and we've re-centered ourselves in that area and got it better. I can't say enough about the efforts of the guys on third down defensively, for example last Sunday. So I look forward to getting in the lab, the coaches and the guys, and attacking this run game situation. It's something we shouldn't have a difficult time pushing through, to be quite honest with you. We have very capable people in that area, but it is below the line as we sit here today."
Putting some numbers to "below the line:" Through Week 10 of the regular season, the Steelers rank 24th in the NFL in rushing yards per game with 101.8, and they are 27th in the NFL in average gain per rush at 3.8. The only teams in the league to rank below the Steelers in both of those rushing categories are Chicago, Miami, and Washington.
James Conner leads the team and is 12th in the NFL in rushing, with 556 yards on 132 carries (4.2 average), with five touchdowns. While those are respectable numbers, it should be noted that in the last three games Conner has 105 yards on 37 carries (2.8 average). His last 100-yard game came on Oct. 18 vs. Cleveland, and of those five rushing touchdowns, four of them came in the first five games of the season.
What has gone wrong? Has it been the specific running plays being called, the execution of those plays, how opponents are defending the Steelers' running game, the offensive personnel?
"It's usually a combination of all the above," said Tomlin in response to that very question. "Specifically last week (against the Bengals) I was not surprised of the commitment Cincinnati had to packing the line of scrimmage. We stepped into a stadium where we hadn't seen our quarterback all week. So it was reasonable to expect them to have an agenda to push us toward that in an effort to check his readiness, our collective cohesion in that area. But sometimes we're just not doing good enough as well, and so it's a combination of all the things you suggest. We'll roll up our sleeves and get about the business of attacking it this week."
Earlier in the season, Tomlin had referred to Conner as the "bell cow" of the running backs, meaning he considers him the lead player of the group and the one deserving of the bulk of the carries. When Tomlin was asked if he is re-thinking the division of labor at that position and whether he still considered Conner the "bell cow," he answered:
"I do not. He is. We're going to get better."
When another question about the running game came up, Tomlin's answer indicated he had said all he was going to say publicly about the issue.
"Guys, I think I've been very clear about where we are as a run unit," said Tomlin. "We're not up to snuff right now, we accept ownership for that. We're going to roll our sleeves up and solve it. We had a similar discussion a couple of weeks ago when you guys were asking about our third-and-long defense. We did similar things there, and I expect similar results with respect to the run game."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"From a health standpoint, in-game we had a couple of bumps and bruises that could affect potential availability, or at least (practice) at the front part of the week. Jaylen Samuels had a quad (injury), Trey Edmunds had a hamstring (injury). We'll see where the week takes us in terms of some of those guys. There is really big optimism in the potential return of two guys who have missed some time. Mike Hilton (shoulder) is back to work (Wednesday), and we're excited about that, and Chris Wormley as well, who has missed a significant amount of time with his knee injury."