All offseason there was talk about how the Pittsburgh Steelers would be a hard-nosed running football team, and then in Week One the team tried to throw the ball around the park. Obviously the way the game went played a big reason for that, but nonetheless the Steelers need to run the ball more than 10 times Monday night against the Cleveland Browns.
Pittsburgh’s bread and butter is its run game. It helped propel the Steelers into playoff contention last season when they won seven of their last nine games on the back of running backs Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. While the San Francisco 49ers do have an elite run defense, the Steelers still should not have shifted their focus away from the run, especially because last season Pittsburgh was able to run the ball against great run defenses anyway.
That was last week though. The team has to move forward, and offensive coordinator Matt Canada has to go back to what works. The Browns have a great defensive line, and like the 49ers, can stop the run and rush the passer. Last week, the Browns held the Cincinnati Bengals to 53 total yards when running on first down, an average 4.41 yards per carry. Although only two of those 12 runs really did anything with runs of 22 and 12 with the rest four yards or less.
However, Cincinnati kind of abandoned the run after first down, only running it four times on second down, despite being more successful on that down. While the Bengals did not record any gashing runs on second down, the three of the four went for five-plus yards and the Bengals averaged 4.25 yards per carry on second downs and only one of those runs was by starting running back Joe Mixon.
It is a very small sample size but running for 4.25 yards on second down is good and sustainable had they kept trying, but they did not. Again, the way the game transpired played into that, but Pittsburgh has to see that running against Cleveland shouldn’t be impossible. If the Steelers commit to it and vary when they run, it could be successful.
It clearly won’t be easy for the Steelers to run the ball early, but they have to commit to it. Pittsburgh ran a designed run play on first down only two times for a total of minus-one yard. Those numbers are obviously bad, but it also shows the team did not even attempt start drives by running, and the 10 total runs showed that Canada completely abandoned the run after the team went down and the run game did not get off to a hot start. Running the football requires repetition and rhythm, and in particular for Harris who is a volume back, the team has to commit the run.
Last season, Pittsburgh was great at that, as throughout the final nine games last year the team averaged 34.4 rushing attempts game. The team was nowhere near where it needed to be last Sunday and that has to improve. In Week 18 last year against Cleveland, Pittsburgh ran the ball 37 times for 144 yards; while Cleveland improved its defensive line this offseason with the addition of DT Dalvin Tomlinson and a new defensive coordinator in Jim Schwartz, Pittsburgh showed that so long as the team commits to running the football, it will be successful.
Another big reason to run the football is it should help QB Kenny Pickett. Pickett has not shown yet he can be successful throwing the ball 35-plus times as he has only won one game throwing that often. Again, the way the game plays out sometimes shapes play calls, but Pickett has thrived when the team throws the ball between 20-30 times. A way to do that is to run the football, even when it may not be successful early on.
Last week Cleveland allowed 75 rushing yards on 20 attempts; the Bengals had a below average 3.8 yards per carry against Cleveland but at least they attempted to run the ball. The Steelers need to try and run the ball on Monday because having Pickett throw 40 times is not going to lead to wins, and if Burrow struggled against the Browns pass defense and pass rush, Pickett most likely will too. A way to combat that is by running the football.
Canada needs to vary up the runs, Cleveland was gashed a couple times on runs on first down, but if the Steelers can be unpredictable when they run, it could lead to big gains and get a rhythm going. Warren is certainly capable of making big plays, and even Harris had an explosive run of 24 yards last Sunday. The Browns have a great defense, and it is not going to be easy. But in Pickett’s young career it is obvious he thrives with an effective run game, and a run game will not be effective if it does not receive opportunities.