No, the title is not a typo. The Steelers are 9-0 this season, but their 3-0 start to November has been historic for a reason that may only excite the anti-running game crowd.
The Steelers are the first team in NFL history* to win three straight games without rushing for 50 yards in any of them.
*Since 1940, but given the way offenses ran the ball prior to that, it’s safe to assume this is a record for all time.
They rushed for 48 yards in Baltimore, 46 yards in Dallas, and 44 yards at home against the Bengals, a lousy run defense, on Sunday. At this rate, the Steelers will attempt to go 19-0 by rushing for 24 yards in the Super Bowl.
This is so unusual that the Steelers already tied the single-season record for most wins without rushing for 50 yards (3). It has been done by five other teams with the 2008 Colts the last to do it.
But this is three games in a row, which has never been done. The 2020 Chiefs actually are on the doorstep of doing this too. They rushed for 50 yards against the Jets and 36 yards against the Panthers in their last two wins. So if we adjust it to “50 or fewer yards” and the Chiefs do it again on Sunday night against the Raiders, then they would join the Steelers.
Maybe it’s just something about this pass-happy pandemic season, but it is concerning that the Steelers couldn’t grind out more yards against Dallas and Cincinnati defenses that rank 30th and 31st in rushing yards per carry. Pittsburgh’s running game has been inconsistent all season, but at least James Conner would break some long runs here and there in the first six games. It hasn’t happened since and the offensive line is also not getting the job done in short-yardage situations. The Steelers rank 21st in short-yardage runs.
On the flip side, the Steelers were playing from behind for much of the Baltimore and Dallas games. No chance to pad the numbers late on the ground. But Sunday, that game was a rout and they still couldn’t run for anything.
Pittsburgh is in Jacksonville this week. When they met in 2018, the Steelers erased a 16-0 deficit for a 20-16 comeback win by rushing only 11 times for 26 yards. Ben Roethlisberger went from having one of his worst three-quarter starts ever to one of his best finishes in his career. The Steelers would like to avoid a repeat of that game script this week.
While Pittsburgh has a respect for the tradition of running the ball that maybe only Chicago can rival, there has never been a season where it’s probably less important to run than this one. Passing numbers are off the charts and Roethlisberger has been feasting with the quick, short passing game. He has already thrown 22 touchdown passes to four interceptions and has four solid wide receivers and a tight end (Eric Ebron) to choose from.
If the lack of a running game dooms Pittsburgh’s season, it’s going to happen because they are too slow or bullish about it to stick with the pass and avoid killing drives with runs. But given this team’s history in the Roethlisberger era, a running back fumble or failure to convert a 4th-and-1 is more likely to hurt the team in the playoffs than any arbitrary rushing total they finish the game with.