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Tomlin: Steelers need to find offensive consistency

In two games, the Steelers have scored two offensive touchdowns and have struggled to consistently move the football.

One game is an anomaly. Two games with continued struggles and things border on becoming a trend.

That's what has Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin's attention coming out of the team's 26-22 victory Monday night over the Cleveland Browns at Acrisure Stadium.

"We have to get our mojo back," Tomlin said Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the Steelers used a pair of defensive touchdowns to vault them to a 1-1 start to the season.

"We've got to get that mojo that we had in the preseason where we're playing fast and fluid with confidence, individually and collectively. We've lost that, to be blunt, in the last several weeks. We're not getting the type of fluidity that we want. It starts with we're not teeing up possession down play, not being in advantageous possession-down circumstances and really making it challenging to sustain drives and in the score points."

Through two games, the Steelers are averaging 247.0 total yards per game, which ranks 31st in the NFL. They're also 31st in the league averaging just 48 rushing yards per game. Only the Vikings have been worse.

And that's put additional pressure on second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett to carry the offensive load.

Pickett has thrown for 454 yards in the team's first two games, but he's also thrown two touchdowns against three interceptions while completing 60.5 percent of his passes.

Tomlin has not been unhappy with Pickett's work leading up to each week, but the results haven't necessarily been what the Steelers expect of their second-year quarterback.

"He's done a lot of things well in preparation," Tomlin said. "Performance, he could play better. We all could play better. But procedurally I like what I see from him. And usually when a guy procedurally is in the right spot, the performance soon follows."

The hope is that gets worked out in Week 3 at Las Vegas against the Raiders.

Getting most consistency on offense would be a good place to start.

The Steelers averaged 146 yards rushing per game over their final nine games of 2022, and did so with one of the best negative run ratios in the league. But thus far in 2023, they've been stopped for zero or negative yards in the running game far too often.

Not counting knee-downs by the quarterback, the Steelers have seen 14 of their 25 running plays thus far in 2023 go for two or fewer yards.

"Without looking at the film, I think it was just lack of execution again," center Mason Cole said of the lack of running game fluidity against the Browns, who limited the Steelers to 55 yards on 21 carries. "The last two weeks, we haven't executed to the level we know we can. We've got to get that fixed."

Conversely, they've had eight running plays go for five yards or more, with Najee Harris gaining 62 of his team-best 74 rushing yards on three carries of 21, 17 and 24 yards.

The Steelers went into 2023 wanting to produce more chunk plays. But they've largely been feast or famine when it comes to their running game.

"We're not going to have knee-jerk reactions in terms of trying to make wholesale changes in an effort to change that outcome. But we do acknowledge that too as a pattern, we've had two outings that are not up to snuff in that regard and so it has our attention as we were preparing for this next one. We're all in this thing together. We're not assigning blame for anyone. Obviously it starts with coaching. We've got to coach better. We've got to get these guys playing faster with more fluidity.

"We have to play more coordinated, particularly at the early stages of games. We have to anticipate schematics of those that we play against a little bit better in displaying anticipation as a component of preparedness. They do some things, particularly from a rush structure standpoint, early in football games that created challenges. But you see those type of challenges week in and week out and when you're in when you're playing and playing good, you you run over those things like speed bumps, and so we have to get to that."

With players saying the execution of the game plan has been an issue, Tomlin said it's incumbent upon him and his coaching staff to put the players in better positions to succeed.

"We've got to put them in really good circumstances. They have to recognize all circumstances and perform," Tomlin said. "It's a procedure that transpires over the course of six days. It's planning from a coaching perspective. It's teaching and learning from a player and coach perspective in the classroom setting, walkthrough setting. There's an execution component of it that's played out in reps in practice. 

"You have a limited number of those and so you've got to be thoughtful and intentional about how you utilize them. Not only what you're run, but the the schematics that you're presenting to them on the other side and their ability to absorb it and and learn and understand and gain confidence and, and thus individually collectively play fast and fluid and make the type of splash plays that we're talking about."

Watt he does: Linebacker T.J. Watt soared to the top of the Steelers all-time sack list on Monday night when he took down Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Watt has reached the milestone in record time, recording 81.5 career sacks in just 89 games. 

Coach Mike Tomlin was asked what allows Watt to be so good, and the answer was as simple as it gets.

"T.J.," Tomlin simply said.

He went on.

"DNA. Will. Talent. Commitment," rattled Tomlin matter-of-factly. "A lot of things."

It was the second straight week where Watt was dominant, this time adding a 16-yard fumble return for a touchdown off of Alex Highsmith's strip sack.

Tomlin said a part of the success he has is the system he is in, but it's up to him to make that system work for him.

"This is a good environment and system for him," said Tomlin. "It's a lot of things that produce performance. We are really excited about having him and appreciate what he does.

"It's a lot of variables to that discussion. But he is a key component of any component of that discussion."

What they do: The Steelers preached the importance of making splash plays after Week 1 of the season, and linebacker Alex Highsmith did just that on the first play from scrimmage.

Highsmith intercepted Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, after safety Minkah Fitzpatrick almost came up with the interception himself.

"It was kind of slow motion. I was just dropping," said Highsmith. "I thought Minkah picked it off. And there it was. I saw some open grass and just took off. I was pretty tired after that."

It's not the first time Highsmith has made a play while dropping back in coverage, also having a pass broken up against the Buffalo Bills in the preseason.

But it's not the norm and that is fine with Coach Mike Tomlin.

"We are appreciative of his coverage, but we pay him to get to the quarterback," said Tomlin. "We change things up every now and then for balance. We'll ask him to drop, we'll ask T.J. (Watt) to drop.

"But you guys know what they do. They're edge rush men."

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