For the first part of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ winning streak, they weren’t getting a lot of help from their running game in many cases. That has been a bit different over the course of the past three games, in which they have rushed for over 120 yards in each contest, through a collective effort minus James Conner.
That has been critical to their success, something that Mike Tomlin talked about last night with Bob Pompeani during his appearance on The Mike Tomlin Show. Through the three-pronged deployment of Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, and now Kerrith Whyte, they have been able to cobble together enough of a threat in the running game to remain viable in that area.
“It is critical, and it’s critical in a couple of areas”, Tomlin said of maintaining an effective running game. “It keeps us in manageable possession downs, and manageable possession downs is a key for any inexperienced quarterback, so it is paramount that we stay in manageable third downs for Duck, to give him not only an opportunity to execute, but to minimize the potential of things that he could see from defenses”.
According to Pro Football Focus, Hodges has been the quarterback on the field for 37 third downs and fourth so far this season. They have only gotten the first down 13 times so far, but that has been improving in recent weeks, in part because they’ve been in more manageable third-down situations.
“The longer the down and distances on possession downs, people get whacky”, Tomlin said. “They can be outside-the-box thinkers. They could throw a variety of things at you. The shorter the down and distances are, the more conventional they get”.
“That’s been a critical element of it”, he added, “but also, just in terms of the time of possession. We’ve got a defense that’s playing really well right now. If we can assist them in that play by allowing them to spend quality time on the bench area, it helps us all collectively”.
The Steelers have won the time of possession battle—comfortably in the case of the game over the Cincinnati Bengals by over 10 minutes—in two of the past three games since Hodges has been the primary quarterback, and since the running game has been more effective. They did lose the time of possession battle against the Cleveland Browns, but they dominated the first quarter. Pittsburgh took over in the second half.
The running game and being able to control the ball will be important tonight against the Buffalo Bills, who have one of the better defenses in the league, and certainly much better than their past three opponents, who have had some of the worse defenses. This will be Hodges’ biggest test yet, so some support from behind would be a great aide.