Mike Tomlin, as the team sat in its hotel Saturday night, delivered a message to a group sitting at a clear crossroads in its season.
That message appears to have worked. At least for this week. And especially for one key element of the game that has been missing for far too long.
The Steelers established a run game and, for the third time this season, were able to grind out a win, beating New Orleans 20-10 at Acrisure Stadium.
“He said he loves football, he loves football when it’s tough, and he doesn't want to win easily,” Steelers offensive lineman James Daniels said. “When he says that, it means a lot. He wants to see what we’re made of... That really stuck with me. When a game is tight, he loves it. I've never had a coach say that.”
What the offensive line is ‘made of’ has been beyond questioned for well over a year. But, on this Sunday, the line did something that a Steelers’ offensive unit has failed to accomplish in nearly six years.
Pittsburgh rushed for 217 yards, eclipsing the 200-yard rushing mark for the first time since December 11, 2016, when Le’Veon Bell ripped his way through Buffalo’s defense for 240 yards in frigid Western New York.
“We talked a lot about how we could fix (the run game), and what I could do to help it out,” said running back Najee Harris, who ran for a season-high 99 yards on 20 carries. “Today, it showed up.”
Harris was aided in the run game by a variety of sources. Six different Pittsburgh players carried the ball two times or more, including quarterback Kenny Pickett, who racked up 51 yards and snuck the ball in from a yard out to pad the Steelers’ lead midway through the fourth quarter.
“Quarterback mobility is a component of it,” Tomlin said after the game. “I thought Kenny did some good things with his legs. The runners ran hard, and we came off the ball as bigs up front. We ran off the ball, and so we’ll keep building.”
The run game also received a strong shot of life from an increased role for Jaylen Warren, who picked up 37 yards on nine attempts, but also caught three passes for 40 yards.
And, while Harris had some touches taken away in favor of the undrafted rookie, both players maintain that their bond is strong.
“It’s been huge,” said Warren, who helped the Steelers win the time of possession battle by roughly 17 minutes. “He’s an inspiration to me coming up here. I look forward to being complementary to him. It’s a huge deal to me, however I can ease the work for him. He’s a work horse. He’ll take every snap if he could. That’s just how he is. As a team, we all look up to that. However I fit in to make adjustments, that’s where I’ll go.”
The Steelers, on top of the two backs and Pickett, also turned to two wide receivers, George Pickens and Steven Sims, for carries, and full back Derek Watt got a pair of touches in short yardage situations, as well.
“If you run the ball 15 times, the safety isn’t just gong to keep dropping back, they’re going to come up, said Pickens, who opened the scoring with a short touchdown run. “So, of course (the run game) helped us a lot with those guys pushing in the box.”
The Steelers needed a spark, they needed consistency, and they needed a game and performance like this. They ultimately needed a win. But the team, to a man, insists that the week off wasn’t used to dramatically shift its philosophy. Instead, there were minor tweaks, assessments of what’s worked and what hasn’t, and a commitment to each other and their own responsibilities.
“We had a bye week,” center Mason Cole said. “It’s not like we put a whole new offense in. It was a lot of what we’ve been doing. The details were better and we were just more on point today. The backs ran really hard. Hats off to those guys.”
It’s one game. One win. It’s one the Steelers had to have if they want a chance of turning the 2022 season into something positive, as slim as those hopes still may be.
Before the bye, the belief level — especially in the run game had, perhaps, flatlined. Now? Well, it’s at least shown a pulse. And perhaps, spearheaded by Tomlin’s instruction to accept these battles, and even love them, his team can pull a revival act.
“We have the players and we have the coaches to be successful here,” Daniels said. “We just need to play together, start cutting out the mistakes and we can be a really good team.”