Coming into Monday night’s matchup with the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field in what was likely going to be Ben Roethlisberger’s final home game for the Pittsburgh Steelers, it was paramount that the Steelers had success on the ground with a rushing attack that has mostly struggled all season long.
Yes, you read that right. In Roethlisberger’s final game at home, it wasn’t about #7 turning back the clock. Rather, it was about the Steelers’ offensive line — starting a new center in J.C. Hassenauer over struggling rookie Kendrick Green — getting downhill against a banged up Browns’ front seven, taking advantage of a lack of depth by running the ball early, often, and successfully with rookie running back Najee Harris.
Mission accomplished for the Steelers.
Harris ran the ball 28 times for a career-high 188 yards and a touchdown, setting the Steelers’ all-time rookie rushing record in the process, shattering Franco Harris’s mark of 1,055 yards in 1972. A lot of Harris’s success on the ground in the 26-14 win over the Browns came with Cleveland sitting in a two-high formation with two safeties deep, worrying about the Steelers’ passing attack, rather than loading up to stop the run and force Roethlisberger and a depleted receiving corpse to beat them.
That turned out to be the wrong decision for the Browns and defensive coordinator Joe Woods as Harris carved up the Browns’ defense, capping off the win with a 37-yard rushing touchdown with 51 seconds left, sending Roethlisberger out with a win one last time at home.
Running the football as much as the Steelers did on Monday night wasn’t by accident, according to head coach Mike Tomlin, who said the Browns’ decision to sit in two-high made it an easy decision for the Steelers more often than not.
“They stayed in a lot of two high safeties. I think they had respect for our passing game and understood the gravity of the moment,” Tomlin said following the win over the Browns, according to video via the Steelers’ official YouTube page. “They were playing a bunch of two high safeties. The pile fell forward and we did what we needed it to do in the run game.”
Though there were certainly some puzzling decisions in the red zone in terms of the run-pass balance from the Steelers, there were no issues between the 20s as Roethlisberger and the Steelers stayed patient, pounded the football downhill, and took advantage of a surprising push up front from an offensive line that has struggled all season.
It was quite fitting that on Harris’s final tote against the Browns, he broke a tackle against a loaded box on 3rd and 2 and sprinted home for the game-sealing touchdown, punching the Browns’ defense in the mouth one final time on an emotional night at Heinz Field.