Tomlin looks to correct a 'bad day' by run defense

Was it a bump in the road or a sign of bigger issues?

That's the question that surrounds the Steelers' run defense as they head into a rematch with the Baltimore Ravens Sunday night at M&T Bank Stadium.

Three weeks ago, the Steelers allowed a season-high 215 rushing yards to the Ravens in a 16-14 loss to Baltimore at Acrisure Stadium.

In the two games since, the Steelers have given up just 79 yards on 35 carries, an average of 2.3 yards per attempt, winning both of those games to pull themselves into playoff contention heading into the final two weeks of the season.

The Steelers (7-8) get a chance to see if they just had a bad day at the office or if the running game of the Ravens (10-5) is simply one they can't stop.

"I don't know that was a fork in the road for our run defense," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly press conference at the UPMC-Rooney Sports Complex. "More than anything, I thought we had a bad day. I think our run defense has been really solid over the second half of the year. It wasn't reflected in our play that day. There's nothing we can do about that. That tape is in the can."

Overall, the Steelers are allowing 105.6 yards per game to opponents on the ground this season, the sixth-lowest in the NFL. But since their Week 9 bye, they've been even more stingy, giving up 91.6 yards per game on the ground.

But of the 641 rushing yards they've allowed since their bye week, one-third came in that game against the Ravens, who are second in the league, averaging 166 yards per game.

And just because the Ravens ran the ball successfully against the Steelers a few weeks ago, doesn't mean they'll do so again.

"I've been in this league long enough to know that you can roll two teams out in back-to-back days and the game can unfold differently," Tomlin acknowledged. "Although we did play them a couple of weeks ago and there are things to be gleaned from that, I don't think either party is hanging their hat on how that transpired or that component of it."

One thing the Steelers do know is that they'll need to be prepared for runs from the quarterback – regardless of who the Ravens start at the position.

Lamar Jackson has missed Baltimore's last three games with a knee injury, and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has been non-committal regarding the status of his quarterback this week. If Jackson is held out again, Tyler Huntley would get the start against the Steelers.

Huntley is 2-1 as a starter in place of Jackson, despite throwing for just 517 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He's done that by bolstering Baltimore's rushing attack with 113 yards on the ground. It's not the team-best 764 yards Jackson has rushed for this season, but Huntley's mobility is a threat.

"I think it's very similar in terms of their ability to utilize the quarterback position by design or to make sure you are responsible for it," Tomlin said. "Whether or not the quarterback is carrying the ball or not, you have to be responsible for him carrying out play fakes and so forth that mirror other coordinated runs. Whether it's Huntley or Jackson, all of those things have been very similar."

Tomlin should know. Of Huntley's seven career starts, two have come against the Steelers.

The Steelers defeated Huntley in Week 18 of last season, while he started that game at Acrisure Stadium earlier this season, though he was knocked out of the game with a concussion in the third quarter while running on a hit from safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.

The Steelers will get a chance to show if they learned anything from that bad day at the office on Sunday night against the Ravens.

"We'll see. You'd like to think you learned lessons, but the application of those lessons is a display of learning," Tomlin said.

Embracing Sunday night: Tomlin said he was happy when he got the call last Sunday night that the game this week was being flexed from its 1 p.m. slot on Sunday to the night game on NBC.

"When I got the call the other night that the game was flexed, I didn't hate that. I loved that," Tomlin said. "If your games are not getting flexed this time of year, you're not doing it right. You're not in significant ones. We don't run from that. We run to that. Although we do respect their environment and the hostility of that environment on Sunday night football, we're not going to hate the fact that we're there. We're going to embrace that and smile in the face of the adversity those variables create."

While the Ravens have clinched at least a Wild Card berth, the Steelers need to win their final two games and have the Dolphins lose their final two games and the Jets go at least 1-1 to get into the playoffs.

That means by the time Sunday night's game kicks off, the Steelers could be eliminated from postseason play with a Miami win at New England.

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

To Tomlin, it doesn't matter.

"We're going to focus on the things within our control. That's our preparation and what we did in the stadium on Sunday night," Tomlin said. "We acknowledge all of those scenarios and that those things exist, but all of those scenarios and things have existed since Sept. 11, since we started the season. 

"Every time you step on the field, there's high urgency. There are 17 opportunities to state a case for yourself. We have lived in that urgency. We understand it. So, we're not going to waste any time talking about it. We didn't waste any time talking about it in September. We're going to stay focused on preparing and then ultimately playing this game."

Offensive growth: Tomlin said he liked what he saw in Saturday night's 13-10 victory over the Raiders from his offense on the final drive of the game.

The Steelers got the ball back with 2:55 remaining at their own 24 and drove the length of the field to score on a touchdown pass from rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett to fellow rookie wide receiver George Pickens.

In fact, every player who touched the ball on that drive was in his first or second year in the NFL. Tight end Pat Freiermuth and running back Najee Harris, both second-year players, had three receptions each during the drive, while Pickens had the touchdown catch.

The moment wasn't too big for any of them or Pickett, who engineered his second fourth-quarter comeback of the season.

"When you're in those weighty moments and you're looking around at people, you like to feel their presence. In a lot of instances, I did," Tomlin said. "I didn't see big eyes, I saw sure eyes. I saw guys that understood what was at stake and guys that were prepared to go do it."