The Pittsburgh Steelers snapped a 3-game losing streak and stopped a late rally to defeat the Denver Broncos 26-19 Sunday. But perhaps most important is how they may have rediscovered the formula to winning that has long been the Steelers tradition – embracing running the football.
Why is running the ball important? Consider:
Since 2018, the Steelers are 18-0-1 when rushing for 100+ yards (only team without a loss in such games).
Since 2016 including playoffs, the Steelers are 23-1-1 when they have a RB attain 100 yards, with the lone loss coming from the 2017 game vs. the New England Patriots and the NFL acknowledged erroneously overturned Jesse James TD.
Through the 11-0 start of 2020, compare the Steelers offense when they averaged 137 yards rushing/game and how it impacted Ben Roethlisberger vs. the 48.8 yards rushing over the last 5 games.
- Roethlisberger averaged 23/33 for 236 yards with 11/1 TD to INT ratio and a 109.1 QB rating. The offense scored 31.2 ppg.
- Roethlisberger averaged 29/46 for 254 yards with 9/5 TD to INT ration and 81.2 QB rating. The offense averaged 19.2 ppg.
Entering the game, nothing was fixed the Steelers were #32 in the NFL with only 221 yards rushing as a team and 2 TDs, one of which came from WR JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Najee Harris ended a 16-game streak of failing to have a 100-yard rusher with the best performance (23 carries, 122 yards, 1 TD) from a Steelers running back since 2019. In a single game, Harris more than doubled the total output of the team and had the Steelers dominating the time of possession.
The Steelers finished the first half with a 17-6 lead and Roethlisberger, who entered the game with the 3rd most attempts in the NFL, was only called upon to throw 14 times with 8 completions and 1 TD in the first half and only 25 times all game – the lowest since week 6 of 2020.
Najee Harris gets the game ball
After a slow start, Harris was clearly showing he was the most explosive offensive weapon on the Steelers a little more each week. By halftime, his 89 yards equaled the highest output by a Steelers RB since James Conner had 89 yards vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars in week 11 of 2020.
For a second consecutive week, Harris showed he has a Walter Peyton like ability to dive over the top of the pile to score at the goal line. I don’t think the Steelers need to rely on gimmick plays on short yardage any longer.
Harris came out of the game due to cramps, according to Mike Tomlin, and it was clear his absence was evident. Fortunately, it wasn’t more serious and it’s unlikely the offense will not revolve around him going forward.
New Streak on the Opening Drive
After 13 consecutive weeks of not scoring on their opening drive, Roethlisberger has found Diontae Johnson deep for opening TDs in each of the last 2 games. Last week it was 45 yards, this week it was 50 yards. Johnson continues to get better and demonstrate consistent big play ability.
As far as an “older” streak goes, Ben Roethlisberger extended his streak to 20 consecutive games with a TD pass, the longest active streak in the league.
A Cornerback has to have a Short Memory
James Pierre did not endear himself to the Steeler Nation fanbase when he claimed he was faster than his cousin Lamar Jackson and was seemingly on the verge of taking a lot of heat when he was beaten for a 39-yard TD by Courtland Sutton. The UDFA’s initial chance for redemption literally went through his hands, as he dropped a game-sealing INT with 1:10 left. And while he more than made up for it by intercepting Teddy Bridgewater to seal the game on the final play, it was far from his biggest play of the day.
Never Give up on a Play
When Javonte Williams took a pitch and evaded a tackle by Minkah Fitzpatrick, it looked like he had a straight shot to the end zone, but was caught up to by Pierre and the lanky, athletic CB was just able to bring down the powerful rookie just shy of the goal line on his 49-yard run. After a Devin Bush sack, Pierre made defended Williams on a pass and the Broncos were limited to a FG after a 1st and goal from the 2. Great series for Pierre.
Big game for a Struggling WR
Chase Claypool had 5 catches for 130 yards on the day, including his 1st TD on the season. He had 11 as a rookie but had been inconsistent throughout 2021. However, he not only penetrated the end zone, but made an explosive 59-yard catch to set up one TD and converted a 3rd down on with a nice sideline 21-yard catch along the sideline.
Devin Bush was having another good game, but was taken out for a recurring groin injury that won’t seem to heal, something that seems infectious on the Steelers defense this year. The big loss of JuJu Smith Schuster having to go the hospital for his shoulder is concerning and hopefully it won’t very bad news.
Criticized OT gets the best of a future HOF pass rusher
Chukwuma Okorafor is probably the single most criticized player inside of Steeler Nation, but in a face off against Von Miller (who had 4.5 sacks on the season) Okorafor won the battle. Miller was limited to a pair of tackles and did not make a significant impact on the game. Roethlisberger particularly credited Okorafor for his performance in his press conference by sharing the following: “We weren’t going to sacrifice our whole offense by putting extra tight ends and extra guys over there. We asked Chuks to do a job against one of the best pass rushers in the game and one of the better ones of all time, and I think he did a great job.”
Trai Turner also was quick to credit Okorafor: “I’d be remiss if I didn’t say Chuks had a phenomenal week of practice, a phenomenal game. He was strapped up and ready to go the whole game.”
The Pass Rush had a bigger impact than on the stat sheet:
While the Steelers officially only registered 2 sacks on the day (they accepted a 10-yard penalty over an Isaiahh Loudermilk 1-yard sack), Mike Tomlin noted how the Broncos protected against the Steelers 3-headed monster rotation of T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith and Melvin Ingram by consistently keeping in extra blockers. This really limited what the Broncos options offensively and contributed to having a 24-6 lead in the 4th quarter.
Consistent and Accurate
Chris Boswell deserves a shout out for making a 48-yard FG as well as a very clutch 43-yard FG that extended the lead to 8. He was also good from 51 yards, while it was nullified due to a penalty benefitting the Steelers, he deserves notice.
Four things that won’t show in the Stat Sheet
After the big play by Claypool, the Steelers were threatening with a first and 10 at the Broncos 13, but quickly found themselves facing a 3rd and 15. Roethlisberger threw a pretty much uncatchable ball in the direction of Johnson, who’s threat forced Kyle Fuller into a pass interference penalty. Harris dive over the top happened 2 plays later, but it was a great example of taking a chance while not taking a risk.
Joe Haden was quick to give advice to the young Pierre after giving up the big TD and veteran’s mentorship paid off. Haden made sure that Pierre kept his head in the game and his big plays on the final drive were evidence of great leadership.
When the Steelers got the ball with 1:10 in the first half but the ball deep in their own territory, Mike Tomlin took a conservative approach. Many will criticize his clock management, but it was straight out of the playbook of Chuck Noll. Tomlin was content to take a 17-6 lead into the half and recognizing that this is not the 2017 Steelers explosive offense, chose to see how the drive played out early and since it was set back by an illegal man downfield penalty, chose not to risk giving an easy scoring opportunity for the Broncos.
Roethlisberger called a timeout when he noticed something from the Broncos in the 3rd quarter. After a consultation on the sideline, Roethlisberger hit Claypool down the middle for an 18-yard TD. This was specifically asked about in the post season press conference and confirmed, so nice head’s up by Big Ben.
Any additional observations, leave them below!