In the immediate aftermath of the loss to the Tennessee Titans, a lot of things seemed bleak for the Steelers. Their record was 2-3, which while hardly a calamity from a pure won-loss standpoint still was worrisome because of the manner in which the defeats were occurring.
To summarize, the Steelers couldn't run the football, they couldn't get off the field on third downs, and they were crippling their chances with too many penalties, especially on kick returns. To be sure, there were some other underlying reasons, but for Coach Mike Tomlin those were three of the areas to target.
Three weeks later and three wins later, Tomlin said he sees some of the fruits of that labor.
"Some big theme things that we have focused on the last several weeks, we're starting to see develop in our play, which is a good sign for us," said Tomlin during his weekly news conference at noon on Tuesday. "We had talked openly about improving our yards per carry offensively, and I think we've done that over the last month or so, and it has made us more balanced and tougher to defend. It has enabled us to possess the ball."
In those first five games, the Steelers did post a 123-yard rushing performance against the Philadelphia Eagles, but overall their rushing attack was languishing in the 2.9-yards-per-carry neighborhood.
In the three games since – all wins – the Steelers have had a 100-yard rusher in each. It was Jonathan Dwyer in the wins over Cincinnati and Washington, and then Isaac Redman last Sunday against the New York Giants. That marked the first time the Steelers have had three straight 100-yard rushers since the games of Dec. 9, Dec. 16 and Dec. 20 in 2007.
This recent surge allowed the Steelers to raise their average on the season to 3.9 yards per rush, and they rank just behind the Houston Texans in average time of possession in 2012.
Tomlin continued, "On defense, about a month ago opponents were converting about 49 percent of their third down opportunities against us. We've challenged ourselves in that way and since that time we've grown. We held the Giants to 2-for-10, and I think we've got the cumulative number down to around 41 percent, which is moving closer to what we're comfortable with. Obviously there is still room for growth in that area."
The Steelers were allowing third-down conversions at a rate of 49.2 percent through that loss to the Titans, and they are now at 41.5 percent after allowing the Bengals, Redskins and Giants to converted at a combined 28.6 percent.
Tomlin concluded, "And in the return game, we have felt we have dangerous return men when we're not shooting ourselves in the foot. I think largely we were able to do that last Sunday, and the field position our return game provided was an asset to us in the football game. I like the quality depth at the return position. What Emmanuel Sanders was able to provide us as a No. 3 punt returner, if you will, was helpful to us and much appreciated."
Through five games, the Steelers were being penalized at a rate of eight for 80 yards per game, and remember those only were the ones accepted by the opponent. In Tomlin's estimation, too many of those penalties were for holding or illegal blocks on both offense and returns.
In the three most recent games, the Steelers have all but eliminated those, and the return game has flourished as a result. Against Cincinnati, Washington and the Giants, the return game has provided 457 yards on both punts and kickoffs, with longs of 41, 63 and 68 yards.
"We'll take these lessons learned, our ability to battle through some obscure circumstances and so forth, and hopefully it'll be something that strengthens us as we move forward," said Tomlin. "I know that will be in our intention."
INJURY UPDATE: Said Tomlin, "Antonio Brown has an ankle sprain, which leaves his participation very much in doubt this week. We'll see where the week takes us. We'll leave the door ajar, but usually those aren't positive things, particularly for someone who earns a living the way he earns a living, which is his short-area quickness and things of that nature.
"Rashard Mendenhall will get some work this week, and we'll see where that work leads us. He could be characterized as questionable. I think it will be another week for Marcus Gilbert and Troy Polamalu. I think they'll both participate in a limited capacity but (we're) less optimistic about them. Questionable is Stevenson Sylvester with his right hamstring. I think Jonathan Dwyer has a strong chance to make it. We'll take him day-to-day and see where the work takes us. And guys who were coming off injury – Isaac Redman and LaMarr Woodley – were no worse for the wear. We expect those guys to continue to move forward from a playing standpoint. There were no setbacks during the game or after the game with those guys.
"Chris Rainey has a rib injury. It's going to be big-time uncomfortable, but he has an opportunity to play. We'll see where it takes us as we push through the week. His participation might be limited during the early part of the week."