(KDKA) — The Pittsburgh Steelers were the NFL’s last undefeated team, winning their first 11 games. They’ve since lost three of four, including two games to teams with losing records. The Steelers have looked like a completely different team since the streak ended. And some of it can be blamed on the running game, or the lack thereof.
The Steelers had a 100-yard rusher in four of the first five games and at least 100 yards rushing in all five games. Since then they’ve not had a single 100-yard rusher and topped the 100-yard mark as a team just once. But they’ve had multiple games with under 50 yards on the ground, including against the Dallas Cowboys (46), Cincinnati Bengals (44), and the Washington Football Team (21). These are all below-.500 teams. They haven’t faired much better against playoff-caliber competition.
The passing games has been better over the last month. But it hasn’t been great. And these offensive issues don’t bode well for a possible Steelers playoff run. “They will not go very far, because they’ve played two good quarters of offensive football this entire month, says Jonathan Jones, senior writer at CBS Sports. “And that was just these last two quarters against the Indianapolis Colts. Beyond that, they’re not able to run the football.”
“You’re not going to win many games in December not being able to run the football,” Jones continues. “What do you know the Steelers have not won many games in December not running the football. But certainly, going into January, where this is a pass-happy league, but in the postseason, it is about balance. It is about keeping the defense guessing. And if you don’t have the run game, I don’t see how you make it to the AFC title game. So I’m not at all going to be surprised if the Steelers get bounced in the wild card round, if they cannot generate a run game.”
The Steelers have one more opportunity to get the offense, and the running game in particular, back on track before the playoffs. That happens this Sunday, when they face the Browns in Cleveland. With the team resting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and center Maurkice Pouncey, among others, it’s hard to see that happening.
“The Steelers are resting Ben Roethlisberger, which I don’t mean to question Mike Tomlin, but I do question that,” says Jones. “And they’re going with Mason Rudolph, who, if the Browns were at full health, I would be looking at Browns in this game. So it seems like Roethlisberger, maybe Cam Heyward, maybe some other player will be rested for this game.”
With Rudolph under center, we may see a lot more of James Conner and Benny Snell. The two running backs had a combined 11 carries for 21 yards last week. They’ll be facing a motivated Browns team, looking to punch its ticket to the playoffs and end it’s 17-year playoff drought.
But the Browns are also dealing with a COVID-19 situation. Two more players have tested positive (reportedly LB Malcolm Smith and TE Harrison Bryant). The team has shut down their facilities for the second time in two days. “It will depend on whether they can one, get that under control, and two, what positions are affected by it,” says Jones. “If last week it hadn’t wiped out a very important position group like the wide receivers, I don’t think that we’re talking about a Browns loss to the Jets. But we are, because it’s hard to win football games without wide receivers. So I think that that’s going to be something to look for.”
According to Jones, “it would be it would be just Cleveland’s luck to miss out on the playoffs after starting the way they did.”