Tomlin: Steelers continuing to grow

Playing offense in the NFL can be a little like ordering off a menu.

While you might have some go-to items on that menu, there might be days when you want to try something else or add a little extra item to your entree if you have enough time to scan the whole thing.

That’s the case with play calling, as well.

The problem for the Steelers in their first two games of this season, however, was that they hadn’t been able to look at the entire menu. Because the offense was having issues early in games staying on the field, the Steelers hadn’t been getting proper time to scan the menu.

But in last Sunday night’s 23-18 win over the Las Vegas Raiders, the Steelers were able to get to some of those additional plays thanks to having more sustained drives. And the result was a more efficient and diverse offensive attack.

Repeating that performance this Sunday when the Steelers (2-1) travel to Houston to take on the Texans (1-2) will be something the team hopes to repeat.

One of those things was having quarterback Kenny Pickett roll out of the pocket more to make use of his above-average mobility and ability to throw the ball on the move. The Steelers hadn’t gotten the opportunity to do that much in their first two games, but it was a big component of their plan against the Raiders.

“That’s what we desire to do anyway, sometimes there’s less of it when we’re not gaining enough fluidity to put snaps together you know, and that’s some of the diversity I think that gets lost sometimes when you’re not converting third downs and you’re not moving the ball,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly press conference at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

“Sometimes you guys asked about snap distribution for runners, for example, ‘Hey, can we see more of (Jaylen Warren)?’ Well, not if we have 15 snaps in the first five possessions because we’re not converting third downs. It’s the same thing with play concept variation. The more success you have, the more you control in-game scenarios. The more you’re on schedule and more possession downs you win, the more concept diversity you have and you see pocket movement and play-action and misdirection passes and screen game and quick game and all the things that really do a good job of keeping defenses off balance.”

In other words, stay on schedule early in games and at least keep things close – or play with a lead – and you’re in charge of what you do offensively. Don’t do that and things become predictable on offense.

That had been the case against two stout defensive tests the Steelers faced in Weeks 1 and 2 in the 49ers and Browns.

As Tomlin noted, the Steelers failed to record a first down on their first five possessions against San Francisco. And the defense didn’t get stops, either, in that stretch, leading to a 20-0 first-half deficit.

The Steelers also failed to record a first down in the opening quarter against the Browns, but Cleveland managed just a field goal itself during that period, allowing for a little more diversity than just throwing the ball on every down, as had occurred in the Week 1 loss to the 49ers. But the offense began to move the ball in the second quarter, allowing the offense to open things up a little more.

Against the Raiders, everything was in play thanks to a solid defensive effort combined with the offense moving the ball – and making some splash plays itself.

The Steelers had 233 total yards against San Francisco and upped that to 255 yards against the Browns. They gained 333 yards against the Raiders. And more importantly, after converting just 9 of 29 third downs in their first two games, they converted 6 of 15 against the Raiders.

A big part of that was quarterback Kenny Pickett playing more efficiently. Pickett had the first game of his young career with two touchdown passes and posted a 108.5 passer rating against the Raiders without turning the ball over. Pickett had two touchdowns and three interceptions in the first two games of the season.

The expectation is that growth will continue for a player now with 15 career starts under his belt. The Steelers are now 9-6 in Pickett’s starts and 8-2 in the past 10 games in which Pickett has started and played at least a half.

And as he continues to get more experience, his menu of plays will continue to become more diverse.

“We’re getting better. We had better,” Tomlin said. “Everyone better be getting better, regardless of the outcome of games, obviously, but it’s good enough to win the games. But there’s some components to get better. The planning component, the coach component, the playing component, and then the adjustment component. We’ve been dealing with all of those things and everyone does. But I just want to be really clear about just everyone’s still very much in development, as are we, and I saw some signs there to build upon in the midst of earning a victory.”

Being gap sound: After allowing two 100-yard rushers in the first two games of the season, the Steelers defense clamped down against the Raiders, with Josh Jacobs only able to gain 62 yards on the ground on Sunday night.

Stopping the run was a major focus for the defense last week, something almost every player talked about leading up to the game.

“It’s being gap sound, everybody doing their job and at the end of the day, just tackling,” said linebacker T.J. Watt the Friday prior to the game. “That’s been a big issue for us. We have guys to the ball. It’s just a matter of getting them down to the ground.”

Fellow linebacker Alex Highsmith echoed Watt’s words, knowing the importance of it.

“We have to be sound. We have to tackle,” said Highsmith. “Josh Jacobs is one of the best backs in the league. He runs hard, he runs physical, so we have to be physical with him. It starts with getting off blocks, staying in gaps, staying disciplined. Once we get to that point, we have to wrap him up and make a tackle. He is a hard guy to bring down.

“It’s the little details. We all have to be disciplined, stay in our gaps, in our fits. There are times we can be better at tackling. Josh Jacobs is a physical back, so we have to be able to get him down. It starts with getting off blocks and everyone doing their job. If we all do our job and communicate well, we can be a very good defense.”

When he was asked what made the run defense better during his press conference on Tuesday, Coach Mike Tomlin pointed to what his linebackers said.

Being gap sound.

“I just thought we were out of place less,” said Tomlin. “Sometimes out of place less means no open gaps, which was the case. Less open gaps. Sometimes out of place means not in position to tackle and thus creating more broken tackles.

“If a guy gets to where he needs to be late, or is not in a proper body position for whatever reason, those raise the potential for missed tackles. I think we are moving with greater fluidity to our areas of responsibility, and we are getting there with more frequency, so we are minimizing missed tackles and open gaps and that’s where you start.”

Staying on schedule: For the second week in a row, Coach Mike Tomlin is switching up the team’s Wednesday practice schedule, but there isn’t anything mystical or superstitious about it.

It’s simply because once again, the team is on a short week.

Tomlin pushed practice back several hours last Wednesday because the team played on Monday night, and he wanted them to have ample time to review the film from the Cleveland game, before moving on to the Las Vegas Raiders.

This week is a similar scenario. With a Sunday night game, and not arriving back in Pittsburgh until early afternoon on Monday because of flight issues, it’s once again a short week the team is facing. And that is the simple reason for repeating the process.

“We played on Monday night, so we lost Monday’s tape last week,” said Tomlin. “We were in Kansas City this Monday, so we are going to get our Monday work done. And that Monday work is reviewing performance in an effort to learn, in an effort to better prepare for this next cycle.

“Sometimes when you are dealing with short weeks later in the season, you might can a tape and move on, but not in the early stages when we are growing and developing.

“We’ll pause before we get to the Houston component of our workday on Wednesday and start with a review of what we’ve done. Not only the accountability of play component, but the evaluation of planning, whether it’s classroom planning, grass planning, how we allocate our reps, how we divide the labor up, it is a major evaluation thing of everything we did last week in an effort to better perfect the process this week.”

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