First-world problems: Unbeaten Steelers looking for run game

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Tomlin said minutes after the Pittsburgh Steelers improved to 9-0 after a victory over Cincinnati on Sunday that he wasn’t worried about his team’s scuffling running game because “we can give it to you however you want it.”

Upon second glance, maybe not.

While the Steelers are cruising right along as the NFL’s lone unbeaten team, Tomlin admitted Tuesday that the only thing perfect about his group is its record and there is plenty to work on before a visit to reeling Jacksonville (1-8), starting with a rushing attack that’s taken a significant step backward over the past month.

“You always go through lulls in the season where components of your play are lacking, and it requires a re-center of energy or attention or focus,” Tomlin said. “I believe that is where we are in regards to the run game right now. We will get about that task this week.”

Pittsburgh averaged 136.8 yards rushing during its first five games, a number that’s dropped to 58 yards per game during a stretch that included a season-low 44-yard effort against a Bengals team that came in 29th against the run while allowing 5.2 yards per carry.

Ultimately it didn’t matter on a day when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger passed for four touchdowns after Cincinnati curiously stacked the line of scrimmage and dared Roethlisberger to throw it.

However, Tomlin understands being able to move the ball on the ground and play keep-away from opponents will matter at some point, most likely in the playoffs. While the Steelers put up 36 points against Cincinnati, they also punted seven times. Kick it away to Patrick Mahomes or Lamar Jackson and that often is asking for trouble, and Tomlin knows it.

“We are not up to snuff right now. We accept ownership for that,” Tomlin said. “We are going to roll our sleeves up and solve it. We had a similar discussion a couple of weeks ago when you were asking about our third-and-long defense. We did similar things there, and I expect similar results in the run game.”

Pittsburgh forced the Bengals to go 0 for 13 on third down while putting together a relatively easy victory after three straight last-second escapes, ones in which Roethlisberger and his versatile group of wide receivers did the heavy lifting offensively.

The odd thing is, the line that is struggling to get a push at the line of scrimmage when run-blocking often excels when Roethlisberger loads up his surgically repaired right arm to pass. He’s been sacked just 10 times in 344 dropbacks, the second-lowest total in the league.

Still, the more he throws, the more likely he is to be hit in some fashion. He was forced to briefly leave a victory over Dallas on Nov. 8 after taking a shot to his left knee. Asking him to throw it 40 or more times — as he’s done in three of the past four games — ups the opportunities defenses have to fire away at a 38-year-old that remains one of the best in the business, but doesn’t move around in the pocket as easily as he did a decade ago.

Yet the wiggle room James Conner and Benny Snell Jr. found early in the season while running primarily out of the shotgun has vanished. Conner is averaging 2.8 yards per carry over his past three games. Snell came off the bench to go over 100 yards in the season opener against the New York Giants, but has averaged just 2.2 yards per carry ever since.

Pittsburgh splurged on fullback Derek Watt in the offseason, paying him $3.75 million a season to chip in on special teams and occasionally block.

Hamstring issues have limited Watt’s availability in recent weeks. Yet at the start of the second half against Cincinnati, he found himself in the huddle for the first two plays. Both of them ended with 1-yard Conner runs. Maybe having Watt involved more regularly might help. Everything is on the table at the moment, though Tomlin stressed Conner remains entrenched as the starter.

“I look forward to getting into the lab with the coaches and the guys and attacking this run game situation,” Tomlin said. “It’s something that we shouldn’t have a difficult time pushing through, to be quite honest with you. We have very capable people in that area, but it is below the line as we sit here today.”

NOTES: Tomlin is optimistic defensive back Mike Hilton, who has missed the past four games with a shoulder injury, will play against Jacksonville. … The team will remain in the NFL’s intensive COVID-19 protocols this week, meaning they will meet virtually and only be in the same area together during practice. … While Roethlisberger thrived after working from home last week while in self-quarantine, Tomlin ruled out the idea of holding Roethlisberger out of practice all week to save wear and tear on his right arm.

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