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An improving run game and the punt of a lifetime highlight the Steelers win in Atlanta

The Pittsburgh Steelers running game has lifted the entire team while winning three out of four games after the bye. How they’ve done it is worth analysis.

NFL: DEC 04 Steelers at Falcons Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Steelers defeated the Atlanta Falcons 19-16 on Sunday for their third victory in four games. Here, in my 3 & Out column, I look at their rapidly improving run game, how a host of self-inflicted wounds allowed Atlanta to hang around, and the punt of Pressley Harvin’s lifetime that closed the door on the Falcons.

Rock, pounded.

For those who yearn for the days when pounding the rock was king, this game was for you. The two teams combined for more total runs (65) than passes (53) and almost as many rushing yards (300) as passing yards (357). The Steelers ran it 37 times for 154 yards while Atlanta went 28-146.

Pittsburgh’s run game has been one of the best in the NFL for a month now. They’ve averaged 158 rushing yards per contest since Week 8, which ranks 5th in the league over that time. An improving offensive line, Kenny Pickett’s legs, a healthier Najee Harris and Mike Tomlin’s willingness to abandon his long-favored bell cow approach for a running back rotation have all contributed to the success.

Harris led the way against Atlanta, gaining 86 yards on 17 carries. But 20 of Pittsburgh’s runs were divided among Pickett, Benny Snell Jr., Jaylen Warren, Steven Sims, Derek Watt and Gunner Olszewski. This is a departure from last year’s philosophy which saw Harris tote the football on 75% of Pittsburgh’s total rushing attempts. Harris has carried the ball on just 53% of the runs this season. A lighter workload is proving beneficial, as Harris appears to be getting stronger. After gaining no more than 74 yards in any game the first two months, he’s had over 85 in three of the past four.

Harris is back to making runs like this one, where on Pittsburgh’s opening drive, he turned a play that appeared to be bottled up into a six-yard gain. Harris initially saw the backside cut on this mid-zone run, but when linebacker Rashaan Evans (54) flashed into the hole, he broke back to the play side, where he was corralled near the line of scrimmage. But Harris shrugged off a tackler, kept churning his thick legs and willed his way to a first down:

On Pittsburgh’s next possession, he made a nifty jump cut on a 2nd-and-1 play to pick up another first down:

Normally I don’t like a back bouncing wide in this situation, as moving laterally makes him easier to tackle than running downhill. But when Harris can do to a tackler what he did here to safety Richie Grant (27), it doesn’t really matter:

While Harris is running with more power than he was earlier in the season, he’s seeing the field better, too. Take this run from a heavy formation with six offensive linemen plus tight end Zach Gentry. Atlanta stacked the box in response, out-numbering Pittsburgh between the tackles. Harris recognized the +1 and wound his run to the backside edge, where he got a nice assist on a block from George Pickens (14) and rumbled for 13 yards:

Harris did the lion’s share of the work on those three plays, but for much of the game he was aided by an offensive line that largely won their matchups against Atlanta’s front. On this run, which is a split-zone concept that resembles the Wham play the Steelers used so effectively last week, the line got lateral movement, creating a backside seam for Harris inside the block of Connor Heyward (83). Pittsburgh’s linemen were able to cover up the linebackers, too, particularly Dan Moore (65), which allowed Harris to slip through the seam for a nice gain:

On this Wham run later in the contest, the line pushed Atlanta vertically, opening a huge hole for Snell. Center Mason Cole and left guard Kevin Dotson knocked the nose tackle into the linebacker, while James Daniels and Chuks Okorafor did a nice job on their combo block on the other side of the ball:

Canada helped, too. He ran his normal repertoire of jet sweeps, some as constraint plays to keep the defense honest. Others were run because of the looks Atlanta presented, such as this one to Sims. In the photo below, you can see how Atlanta kicked their backers to Pittsburgh’s trips formation to the wide side of the field. This gave the Steelers a numbers advantage into the boundary, which they capitalized upon by running the jet action with Jaylen Warren as the lead blocker:

Canada added a wrinkle here by having the line block as though it was wide zone to the field. The split-flow of the line moving one way and the run action going the other pulled Atlanta’s entire front away from the play. The run broke so cleanly Sims wasn’t contacted until he was ten yards down the field:

Pittsburgh’s run game took a lot of the pressure off of Pickett. The rookie quarterback made some big plays when the Steelers needed him to, like this touchdown throw to Heyward on a beautiful double move that extended Pittsburgh’s lead to 13-3 in the 2nd quarter. You can see Heyward, aligned to the inside of the trips formation to the field, duck outside off his stem at the 15-yard line before blowing by the safety, who took the bait. Pickett made a nice touch throw to the back of the end zone for the score:

Mostly, though, he was allowed to manage the football game. He did so efficiently, if not flawlessly, completing 16-28 passes for 197 yards. For the fourth game in a row, he did not throw an interception. The Steelers are 3-1 in those games.

The offense will need Pickett to do more at some point. But for now, a classic formula is paying dividends: effective run game + taking care of the football = success. Some things never go out of style.

SIW’s: The Sequel

In last week’s 3 & Out column, which chronicled the win over Indianapolis, I titled one section “SIW’s,” for Self-Inflicted Wounds. There I looked at many of the unforced errors the Steelers made — penalties, dropped passes, blown assignments — that allowed the game to be closer than it should have.

Welcome to the sequel.

The Steelers entered the game leading the NFL in drives of 10 plays or longer, but were just 28th in points per game. They showcased the reasons for that disparity repeatedly against the Falcons. Despite dominating much of the contest, they allowed Atlanta to make a game of it. This was particularly true on offense, where they had to settle for field goals on four drives where better discipline and execution could have resulted in touchdowns.

On their opening possession, Pittsburgh moved from their own 25-yard line to the Atlanta 23. There, on 1st-and-10, Canada called a read-option where Pickett could either hand the ball to Harris on a trap or pull it and run to the edge based on his read of an unblocked defender. Pickett pulled the ball, and this was the result:

While the read key (#27) closed quickly and forced Pickett to make an immediate decision, his choice was unfortunate. Pickett missed on a potential big play by misdiagnosing the read.

From this angle, you can see the gaping hold Harris had in front of him had Pickett handed him the ball. The Falcons were fooled by the trap, and Harris would have run through the arm tackle of the collapsing edge player for a big gain. Instead, Pickett took a five-yard loss from which the Steelers could not recover. They settled for a Matthew Wright field goal a few plays later.

Their second drive was another long one that ended in a Wright field goal. Again, the Steelers derailed it with unforced errors. First, on 2nd-and-11 from the +28, Pickett missed Pat Freiermuth on a skinny post that, had it been placed better, would have been a touchdown. It wasn’t an easy throw, with the safety closing in, but it’s one you’d like to see Pickett make:

Then, on the following down, Diontae Johnson dropped a throw on a Mesh route. Had he held on, he would have had enough room to run for the 1st down:

The Steelers did not self-destruct on their third possession, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Following a 57-yard pass play to Freiermuth that moved them into the red zone, left guard Kevin Dotson promptly jumped off-sides. But on the next play, Pickett found Heyward for the touchdown that wiped out Dotson’s mistake.

Pittsburgh finished the half with another good drive into Atlanta territory. On 3rd-and-7 from the +30, they appeared to move the chains when Pickett scrambled out of the pocket and found Sims along the sideline just beyond the marker. But Sims stepped out of bounds before coming back in to catch the ball and was flagged for illegal touching. Another mistake, another Wright field goal.

The trend continued in the second half. Pittsburgh methodically drove the field on their opening possession, moving from their own 9-yard line to the Atlanta 17. But on 1st-and-10, Johnson jumped off-sides. Johnson led the league in pre-snap penalties by a receiver in 2021 and has continued to make these lazy mistakes this season. A delay-of-game penalty compounded the problem, and Wright entered again to kick another field goal.

The growth of the offense has been fabulous to see. They have looked like a completely different unit in the four games since the bye week than they did in the eight weeks prior. Yet it’s hard not to be frustrated with how they continually leave points on the board with their unforced errors. Pittsburgh has been able to overcome these mistakes the past two weeks. Against better competition, they will not. The next step in the evolution of the offense is to reduce them.

Foot Ball

In the spirit of the ongoing World Cup tournament, Pittsburgh’s foot-ballers had quite a day.

Wright went 4-4 on field goals, with kicks of 46, 46, 48 and 33 yards. He also did a stellar job of keeping his kickoffs away from the dangerous Cordarrelle Patterson, whose nine return touchdowns lead all active NFL players. Wright perfectly placed a couple of pooch kicks to Atlanta’s up-backs early on. Then, when the Falcons moved Patterson into position to receive them, he booted the ball over Patterson’s head for a pair of touchbacks.

The kick of the day, though, belonged to Pressley Harvin III. “Big Press” came to Pittsburgh last season as a 7th Round punter with plenty of hype. But he has struggled to live up to it at times, frustrating fans with his inconsistency. His punt from Atlanta’s 40-yard line with 0:53 remaining was a thing of beauty, though, as it landed on the fly at the 1-yard line, spun back and was downed by Miles Boykin:

Harvin’s kick was about a foot from being a touchback, which would have given Atlanta possession at the 20-yard line with enough time to move into field goal range, where kicker Younghoe Koo had already been successful from 50 and 51 yards. Instead, they started at the 2. One play later, Minkah Fitzpatrick sealed the deal with a clutch interception, and the Steelers were victorious.

Wright has now gone 12-14 on field goals, including 10-10 the past three weeks, and 7-7 on extra points filling in for the injured Chris Boswell. And Harvin is quietly having a solid year, averaging nearly two yards per kick more than last season with a net improvement of 3.3. In a year where all details matter, Pittsburgh’s foot-ballers have been quietly effective.

And Out...

It’s Ravens week! The Steelers currently own a four-game win streak over their rivals from Baltimore, but they’ve hardly been dominant. Their margins of victory have been 5, 4, 3 and 1 points. Tyler Huntley may replace a banged-up Lamar Jackson at quarterback, but that won’t make things easy on Pittsburgh. Backups have started in this rivalry before and the games have remained tight, including last year’s 16-13 Pittsburgh overtime win with Huntley in the lineup. In the last 20 meetings, Pittsburgh holds an 11-9 advantage in wins, while Baltimore has outscored the Steelers 441-438. Expect another nail-biter on Sunday.