PITTSBURGH — Before heading down the steps behind the bench and into the locker room, Mike Tomlin stopped in front of a boisterous throng of fans celebrating the Steelers’ win over the Bengals Sunday. Tomlin smiled, clapped his hands and shouted, “Yeaaaaaaaaa! Yeaaaaaaaa!” It was the way you might picture Denzel Washington celebrating a victory if he played Tomlin in a movie.
In more formal settings, Pittsburgh sounded all the usual, clichéd notes after wrapping up a 24–16 victory—“It’s just one game. It’s early. We have to keep working”—but there is no denying this was an important one. Cincinnati won at Heinz Field last season and went on to take the AFC North.
Take note of how it happened, too. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 259 yards and three touchdowns (plus two interceptions), but the Steelers came out on a soggy, humid afternoon determined to strike a physical chord against a Cincinnati team that loves to dish out punishment.
The first seven offensive plays for the Steelers on Sunday: run, run, run, run, run, pass, run.
“We knew it was going to be a two-chinstrap game,” said Pittsburgh running back DeAngelo Williams, “and we knew that it was going to be a high running game, as well, because of the field conditions and just the weather conditions, period.”
Neither Roethlisberger nor Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton enjoyed much sustained success through the air, as the rain fell in spurts. The Bengals also generated next to nothing on the ground, finishing with just 46 yards on 18 carries—the fourth consecutive time they have failed to reach triple digits on the ground against Pittsburgh.
It was not easy sledding for Williams, either. The longest gain he produced on 32 runs was an 11-yarder, and he wound up with a measly 2.9 yards per attempt. Still, the Steelers kept coming back to him, time and again, as they tried to take and then maintain control of the game.
“You know how it is, we’re comfortable running it, or throwing it, or both,” Tomlin said. “We seek battles. We want to be a group that’s capable of capitalizing on opportunities, no matter what those opportunities are.”
The Steelers have not exactly been impotent on the ground in recent seasons: Le’Veon Bell has starred when healthy, and Williams piled up 1,200 total yards last year when Bell was sidelined. They’ve also been more than content to lean on their Roethlisberger-led aerial attack, which churned out nearly 5,000 yards in 2014 and ranked third in the NFL last year despite Big Ben missing five games.
Their hand could be forced in 2016. Martavis Bryant is suspended for the entire season, and Markus Wheaton, who was expected to help fill Bryant’s shoes, sat out Sunday with a shoulder injury.
As such, Cincinnati was able to focus maximum attention on Antonio Brown, in the process limiting him to four catches for 39 yards. Sammie Coates, Jessie James and Xavier Grimble all came up with key grabs at various moments for Pittsburgh, but none of those players is yet proven on a week-to-week basis.
Pittsburgh wants to run the ball. It has to run the ball.
“It was very important because you can’t be one-dimensional and win football games,” Williams said. “You can’t throw the ball without having a good run offense. You can’t have a good run offense without a good passing offense, so we complement each other well. It all boils down to [doing] whatever it takes to win football games.”
A few more performances like Sunday’s by Coates would make Roethlisberger’s life easier. So would the continued emergence of James or slot receiver/return man Eli Rogers. When push comes to shove, the Steelers will remain a team that leans on its passing game.
Keeping Roethlisberger healthy, though, is among the top priorities this season. He missed five games to injury in 2015—the Steelers were 3–2 without him in their lineup. The math is simple: The more dropbacks a QB takes, the greater the chances that something goes wrong. Limiting the hits on Roethlisberger just so happens to go hand-in-hand with balancing out the offense.
“We always want to try to get the running game going,” says Steelers tight end David Johnson. “It was a little rainy [Sunday], so that’s just the way we chose to attack at the start.”
The Steelers won’t know for sure how explosive their rushing attack can be until Bell returns from suspension in Week 4. After producing 2,215 yards from scrimmage in 2014, Bell was suspended two games to open 2015, then tore his MCL and PCL in November. Williams saw his role reduced almost to nothing with Bell in the lineup—he averaged 3.7 carries in Bell’s six pre-injury starts. However, his output coupled with Pittsburgh’s desire to keep an eye on Bell’s workload should allow Williams to stay in the plans this season.
“I don’t know moving forward how much we are going to use the two-back system,” Williams said. “I mean, we will have that option. The thing I wanted to do once I got here is when Le’Veon came off the field, that it didn’t take any pressure off the defense, and that’s been my main goal since I have been here. ... But you know, again, Le’Veon Bell is so dynamic when he plays the game that I don’t want him to come off the field.”
The Steelers have not finished ranked higher than 16th in rushing yards since 2011. They haven’t had a top-10 run game since 2007. Williams and Bell together could end those streaks.
But while the Steelers remain unlikely to opt for a consistent ground-and-pound approach, they’re not afraid to go that route when the situation calls for it. They stuck with Williams on Sunday, despite the absence of any home-run plays, because the weather and the game situation called for it. And they got the win.
“The weather was a defensive heaven, they love the elements like that,” Roethlisberger said. “It was very tough sledding on offense. For us, especially going against such a tough defense, it wasn’t easy to make plays. But I thought we did. We made the plays when we had to.”