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3-and-Out: Fast-starting Steelers “run for dough” in their victory over Green Bay

In this week’s “3 & Out” feature, we look at Pittsburgh’s fast start on offense, their resurgent run game and how much the defense missed Minkah Fitzpatrick in Sunday’s 23-19 win over the Packers.

Grand Openings

For the second week in a row, the Steelers took their opening possession straight down the field to score a touchdown. Last week, against Tennessee, it was a 10-play, 78-yard drive that culminated with a 10-yard run from Najee Harris. On Sunday against the Packers, Pittsburgh went 75 yards in nine plays, again finishing with a score by Harris, this time from four yards out.

What makes this so compelling is the stark contrast to which is stands with Pittsburgh’s previous opening drives this season. Over their first seven games, the Steelers ran 29 plays for 38 total yards with no points and two turnovers on their initial possessions. Then, out of the blue, they put together back-to-back touchdown drives that covered 143 yards on 19 plays. What gives? How did they go from so bad to so good in just two weeks?

For starters, they were able to stay ahead of the chains. Aside from a five-yard penalty for a lineman downfield against Tennessee, there were no negative plays or blown assignments that put them in long-yardage situations. These have been drive-killers throughout the season for the Steelers. Pittsburgh struggles to create chunk plays in the passing game, so staying on schedule is essential. They largely did so on these drives.

Another reason for their success is execution. They didn’t miss blocks, or drop balls, or overthrow receivers. Contrast that to their opening possession a few weeks ago against Jacksonville, when Diontae Johnson couldn’t corral a high pass from Kenny Pickett on a post route that would have been a big play. Or their opening drive against the Rams, when Pickett was sacked on a 2nd-and-2 play that turned a favorable down-and-distance into an unfavorable one. This won’t come as a shock, but the offense is far more effective when players execute well and don’t hurt themselves with self-inflicted wounds.

Finally, there’s the Matt Canada effect. Canada moved from the coaches’ box to the sideline the last two weeks, and the difference has been significant. Whether it’s better communication with the players, or a better feel for what the defense is doing, the offense has been crisp out of the gate. Canada has also designed solid opening drives both weeks, using plenty of his signature pre-snap motion to diagnose defensive structures and exploit them.

One drive does not determine the outcome of a game, but Pittsburgh’s fast starts these past two weeks have coincided with two of their best offensive performances of the season. Getting out of the gate quickly may provide their young unit the confidence it needs to sustain success throughout the contest.

Pass for show, run for dough

Any golfer has heard the saying, “You drive for show but putt for dough.” That saying is relative in Pittsburgh. Only it goes like this: pass for show, run for dough.

When Pittsburgh has their run game going, they usually win the football game. That was true last week against Tennessee, when they rushed for a then-season high 166 yards in their 20-16 victory. It was true again on Sunday, as they topped that total with 205 rushing yards. Their attack was extremely balanced between their two feature backs. Jaylen Warren had 101 yards on 15 carries while Najee Harris tallied 82 yards on 16 carries. Pickett threw for a paltry 126 yards on 23 attempts. But the effectiveness of the run eliminated the need to lean on the pass. That seems like an especially good thing since Pittsburgh struggled to make splash plays in the passing game or open up receivers in the middle of the field. That’s a problem for another day. For now, the resurgence of their rushing attack is a reason to be optimistic about the state of the offense.

The script this offense is following is similar to last season’s. The run game struggled out of the gate last year, then picked up steam after the bye week. Over the final nine games, in which Pittsburgh went 7-2, they averaged over 140 yards per game on the ground. This season, the Steelers were averaging just 85 yards per game through seven contests. In the last two, they’ve averaged 100 yards better than that (185.5).

It’s no coincidence the run game has taken off since rookie tackle Broderick Jones was inserted into the starting lineup. Jones took over at right tackle for Chuks Okorafor before the Tennessee game, and his presence has brought a physical element to the right side of the line. In addition, left guard Isaac Seumalo, the prized free agent acquisition from Philadelphia, has gotten comfortable and is beginning to assert himself. The Steelers have increasingly run trap, sweep and power plays that have allowed both Seumalo and Jones to use their strength and athleticism to open holes for Harris and Warren. It’s no surprise that as the line has rounded into shape, the offense has improved as a whole.

The Steelers will need to keep the run game going the next couple of weeks as they travel to division rivals Cleveland and Cincinnati. The best way to beat the Browns and Bengals, both of whom are clicking on offense right now, is to keep those units on the sideline by pounding the football and dominating time of possession. Fortunately for the Steelers, they are developing the ability to do so.

Missing Minkah

The defense did its bend-but-don’t-break routine again on Sunday. Green Bay went up and down the field for much of the game, racking up almost 400 yards of offense, but were held to a touchdown and four field goals.

While not breaking is a good thing, Pittsburgh struggled with coverages in the absence of star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. This was particularly true on deep passes. 145 of Green Bay’s 289 passing yards came on throws that travelled at least 20 yards in the air. Green Bay’s receivers were behind Pittsburgh’s safeties on several occasions, including the 35-yard touchdown pass from Jordan Love to Jordan Reed on a 3rd-and-16 play in the 2nd quarter where Reed beat Keanu Neal on a corner route. Neal appeared to be sitting on the sticks expecting Reed to break near the first down marker, and didn’t move his feet quickly enough when Reed continued vertically. Damontae Kazee got beat deep on several occasions, too. At times, Pittsburgh’s safeties appeared to be anticipating routes from Green Bay that never materialized. Whether they were guessing wrong or simply not executing coverage properly is hard to know. But the Steelers were shakier on the back end than normal.

Losing linebacker Kwon Alexander to an Achilles injury during the game likely contributed to the coverage issues. The Steelers were already missing Cole Holcomb, and minus both Holcomb and Alexander, were down their two best coverage linebackers. This forced them to play Elandon Roberts and Mark Robinson together, both of whom excel against the run but not so much versus the pass. Fortunately, both Neal and Kazee made big plays late in the game when it counted most. Neal had an interception in the end zone off of a deflected pass by Patrick Peterson that killed a Green Bay drive with 3:20 to play. And Kazee ended the game with a walk-off interception as the Packers attempted to score from Pittsburgh’s 16-yard line with :03 remaining. Still, the absence of Fitzpatrick was telling as Pittsburgh lacked their leader in the secondary.

Fitzpatrick wasn’t totally irrelevant on Sunday. Supposedly, he talked defensive coordinator Teryl Austin into changing the call on the final play that resulted in Kazee’s interception. For the Steelers to succeed moving forward, though, he’ll have to be more than just an assistant on the sideline. Fitzpatrick’s status for next week’s game at Cleveland is not known at the time of this writing. But with Holcomb and Alexander both gone for the season, they’ll need Fitzpatrick’s presence to stabilize coverage.

And Out…

The Steelers were outgained by the Packers 399-324, marking the ninth straight game this season they have gained less yards than their opponent. The Steelers are the first team since 1940 to have been outgained in nine straight games yet have a winning record.

A big reason for their success despite losing the yardage battle is that they have been great in one-score games. All six of their wins this season have been by one score or less. Dating back to last season, they have won their last nine such contests. The Steelers might be living dangerously in this regard. But it’s not the yardage battle that counts. It’s the scoreboard. Pittsburgh has won that battle six of nine times this season. Not bad for a team some pundits are calling one of the worst in the NFL.


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