PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Tomlin isn’t getting ahead of himself.
Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers appeared to make progress — and plenty of it — during a 27-19 win over Denver on Sunday. The league’s worst running game gained traction behind an offensive line that for once didn’t look overwhelmed. The defense dominated for three quarters and did just enough in the fourth to halt a three-game losing streak. The “chunk” plays — code for big gains that don’t require the offense to go on extended drives — returned.
Still, Tomlin is well aware 60 minutes of competence doesn’t mean everything is fine. The Steelers are still under .500 (2-3). The job of digging out of the early hole they dug for themselves is just beginning.
And while everyone from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to rookie running back Najee Harris made it a point to credit the line for taking what appeared to be a massive step forward, their head coach is nowhere near ready to say the unit has arrived.
“Time will tell that story,” Tomlin said.
Yes, but for the first time in 2021 the Steelers showed extended glimpses of what first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s attack is supposed to look like: a massive helping of Harris — whose 23 carries marked the most by a Steelers running back in nearly two years — some creative misdirection, and a splash of vintage Roethlisberger.
The 39-year-old Roethlisberger and his coaches spent last week fending off questions whether he can still play at an elite level. He proved against the Broncos he can … when given time.
Denver sacked Roethlisberger once — and that was more of a coverage sack than a breakdown in protection — and hit him just twice. Right tackle Chuks Okorafor handled Broncos star outside linebacker Von Miller, and when Miller dropped into coverage, Roethlisberger exploited him by finding wide receiver Chase Claypool for a 59-yard catch-and-run that set up a 1-yard touchdown dive by Harris.
Claypool finished with five receptions for 130 yards and a touchdown. Wide receiver Diontae Johnson hauled in a long scoring pass on Pittsburgh’s opening possession for a second straight week as Roethlisberger finished 15 of 25 for 253 yards.
Having a running game that may finally be gaining traction helped. Harris’ ability to gash the Broncos meant Denver had to crowd the line of scrimmage, giving Roethlisberger favorable one-on-one matchups down the field.
“I felt like could I sit back there and slide and go to second, third reads at times,” Roethlisberger said. “Like I said, I’m proud of the way the guys played and fought today. We challenged the line this week to be better in the pass game, be better in the run game, and honestly, I thought they answered the challenge in my opinion.”
Harris spent much of the first month of his professional career trying to make something out of nothing. Given a little room by the five guys in front of him helped. So did spending most of the afternoon playing with the lead and Roethlisberger repeatedly choosing to give it to him on plays that called for a run/pass option so as not to disrupt the offense’s rhythm.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
A week after doing a good job of limiting big plays down the field against Green Bay, Pittsburgh’s secondary gave up a couple of deep shots during Denver’s fourth-quarter rally, including a 39-yard touchdown pass from Teddy Bridgewater to Courtland Sutton.
Sutton beat James Pierre on the play, though Pierre — a first-year starter — atoned by picking off Bridgewater in the end zone with 11 seconds left to finally turn the Broncos away.
It’s hard not to overstate just how vital it was for the line — rookie left tackle Dan Moore, left guard Kevin Dotson, rookie center Kendrick Green, right guard Trai Turner and Okorafor — to show tangible signs of improvement. Their development (or lack thereof) is the key to Pittsburgh’s season.
“I think it’s something we needed for those three weeks of losing in a row, but we have to get back off the mat, as coach Canada would say,” Green said. “I think we’re about to start going in the right direction.”
Bridgewater lit up the Steelers for 176 yards passing in the fourth quarter, something he was able to do thanks in large part to an absence of pressure. The Steelers did get two sacks but did little to rattle Bridgewater late as the Broncos flirted with pulling off a miracle.
Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster sustained a serious shoulder injury while getting tackled on an end-around in the second quarter. He was taken to the hospital afterward to be evaluated and will likely be out an extended period. Linebacker Devin Bush exited in the second half with a groin injury. Bush missed a Week 2 loss to Las Vegas with a groin problem.
31-2 — Pittsburgh’s record during Roethlisberger’s career when he averages at least 10 yards per pass attempt as he did on Sunday (10.12).
Trying to win consecutive games for the first time since the end of their 11-0 start to 2020. Pittsburgh hosts Seattle next Sunday night. The Seahawks will be without quarterback Russell Wilson, who is out for several weeks after undergoing surgery on his right middle finger on Friday.