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Tomlin Takes

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'Tomlin's Takes' on AFC North, run game

Hot kitchen: The AFC is the most balanced division in the NFL right now, with all four teams having identical 1-1 records. That's going to change this week with an AFC North matchup at Heinz Field between the Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, the kind of game where things heat up.

"We got a hot kitchen this weekend in Pittsburgh. AFC North ball," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "We got some challenges along the way. Those challenges don't bring us down. Those challenges inspire us. This is a coach's week. We've got to work. We've got to put these guys in position to perform, minimize our weaknesses, lean on our strengths, while at the same time combating the things that the Cincinnati Bengals do and do well."

On the run: One of the main things the Steelers emphasized this offseason was improving the running game, especially after finishing the 2020 season ranked last in the NFL in that category.

Through two games, though, the Steelers are 32nd overall in the NFL on the ground as they are still a work in progress with a rookie running back in Najee Harris and a revamped offensive line.

"We've just got to keep working," said Tomlin. "Development is that. It's development. It doesn't happen in an instant. It doesn't happen overnight. We're sensitive to that. But at the same time there's urgency because we've got ballgames to win in the midst of this. It is a component of it. We'll continue to work that balance of doing what we have to do in an effort to pursue victory, while at the same time growing individually and collectively in some areas where we're extremely young or inexperienced from a cohesion standpoint."

Harris rushed for 45 yards against the Bills, and 38 against the Raiders, with the ground game not able to get going playing from behind. But what Tomlin sees from him is continued growth.

"With each passing quarter he's been better. Not that that's unexpected," said Tomlin. "We spent a lot of time talking about the cohesion, development and comfortability of the blockers, but the same could be said for the runner who's also played eight quarters of NFL football. He was better last week than he was in Week 1 in terms of the things that we value. Maybe some things that aren't valued to the naked eye but just are professionalism things, mechanic things, technical things.

"He's going to continue to get comfortable. And by comfortable, I mean understanding that your preparation sets you up for performance. That's something that a young guy has to get comfortable with. Why do we do what we do on a Wednesday and what does it do in terms of setting me up for success on a Sunday. He's been through a couple of weeks. He's been through a couple of those cycles. He's gaining an understanding about what the process does in terms of setting them up for performance. It should put him in position to let his natural talents come out and play. I'm expecting him to get routinely better with each outing and excited about that."

Next man up: With both Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt making Tomlin's injury list, both with groin injuries, that leaves veteran Melvin Ingram III and first-year player Jamir Jones as the healthy options at the position. While Ingram is a proven commodity, Jones has also shown that he can step up and handle the challenge.

"He has done solidly," said Tomlin. "He did solidly in preseason stadiums, registered production in those games - tackles, pressures, sacks etc. He's been a quality special teamer for us. He's doing the things that young guys do, the natural maturation process. They show you glimpses on offense and defense. They develop in that area, all the while they're productive special teams players and he has been that. They wait for their opportunities on offense or defense. James Pierre is a guy that walked a similar path a year ago and now James Pierre is a regular contributor on defense. He's going through that.

"He might get an increased opportunity to participate this week due to the misfortune, circumstances involving others. That's just the nature of this thing. That's why every man is viable. Every man is working with great urgency. And when I ring their bell, they better answer. You have gotten to know guys like Roberts Spillane under similar circumstances because of someone else's misfortune. We're all excited for guys like J. Jones in circumstances like this if he gets an opportunity to have an increased role. We expect those guys to step through that crack in the door and elevate themselves from a career standpoint."

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