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Steelers keep pace in North

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris, right, celebrates his touchdown with wide receiver George Pickens, center, as quarterback Kenny Pickett walks away during the second half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

PITTSBURGH — On paper, the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t make any sense.

They’ve been outscored by 24 points, outgained by more than 360 yards and outplayed for most of the 24 quarters they’ve been on the field this season.

And yet they’re 4-2 anyway heading into a three-game homestand that could define their season.

“I just love the fight in this group,” coach Mike Tomlin said after a comeback victory over the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday. “They don’t blink. They cut their eyelids off.”

Considering the way it looks sometimes — particularly on offense — it might be the only way to watch.

For more than two hours against the Rams, it looked like more of the same. The Steelers didn’t move the ball with any regularity. First downs, momentum and any sense of cohesive play were hard to come by.

Until, suddenly, they were.

Pittsburgh’s late surge at SoFi Stadium was as overwhelming as it was unexpected. The Steelers racked up 184 yards, scored two touchdowns and held the ball for more than 13 of the game’s last 16 minutes to beat the Rams in Los Angeles in the regular season for the first time in franchise history.

While Tomlin often likes to say there’s nothing “mystical” when it comes to playing better football, the reality his team seems to conjure competency out of thin air at just about the moment all seems lost with surprising regularity.

“Just playing football, man,” quarterback Kenny Pickett said after the fifth comeback win of his career. “It’s not going to be smooth all the time.”

At some point, especially if the Steelers want to keep pace in what looks to be a very competitive AFC North, it might have to be.

Pittsburgh’s early 2023 formula of “sputtering for a while and hoping T.J. Watt bails us out” isn’t going to work forever. Yet it worked — again — in Los Angeles.

Watt’s interception at the start of the second half led to a Pickett quarterback sneak for a touchdown that drew the Steelers even and when the Rams kept missing kicks and opportunities to put Pittsburgh away, the Steelers took advantage and made Los Angeles pay late.

Just as they did against Cleveland in Week 2. Just as they did against Baltimore in Week 5.

Is it sustainable? No. Yet Pittsburgh is optimistic it doesn’t have to be. Watt and the defense — and some questionable decision-making by the opponents (particularly the Browns and Ravens) — have bought the offense time to get it together.

The Steelers are hopeful it finally might be happening. Pittsburgh is 11-4 over its past 15 games going back to last year’s bye week.

Even though points remain at a premium. Even though Pickett and company remain very much a work in progress.

If the Steelers ever start to figure things out offensively on a consistent basis, they even might start to make sense on paper and the field and not just the standings. That’s a massive “if”.”

“I think the sky’s the limit if we work and put it together,” Pickett said. “I’m not going to get into expectations of what I think that we should do or could do, but we’re on our way there so that’s good news.”

WHAT’S WORKING

The increasingly 1A/1B approach to using running backs Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren.

The two running backs have complementary skill sets and seem to be feeding off each other. They each ran for a fourth-quarter touchdown while having an almost 50/50 split in terms of snaps.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The Steelers need to find a way to keep their emotions in check, particularly wide receivers Diontae Johnson and George Pickens. The two were each assessed a taunting penalty against Los Angeles, with Pickens drawing another 15-yard flag for an illegal blindside hit.

STOCK UP

Rookie outside linebacker Nick Herbig has been turning heads since the start of training camp. He got his first career sack when he took down Matthew Stafford in the first half on a speed rush in which he raced around left tackle Alaric Jackson to drop Stafford with ease.

If Herbig — who led the Big Ten in sacks last year while playing for Wisconsin — can continue to progress, it will allow the Steelers to spell Watt and Alex Highsmith a little more frequently to keep them fresh for late-game situations.

STOCK DOWN

Darnell Washington as a pass catcher. The massive rookie tight end’s blocking continues to improve and is the main reason the Steelers drafted him in the third round.

Yet the 6-foot-7 Washington has just three targets and one reception through six games. With starter Pat Freiermuth out at least three more games with a hamstring injury, it’s time to see if Washington can be effective in the passing game or else the Steelers risk becoming too one-dimensional when his No. 80 is on the field.

INJURIES

LB Cole Holcomb tweaked his ankle but was able to return to play.

KEY NUMBER

7 — the number of consecutive wins by the Steelers following their bye, a testament to Tomlin and his staff.

NEXT STEPS

Try to do something they’ve done only once since 2001: beat Jacksonville at home. The Steelers are 1-5 in their past six meetings with the Jaguars (including playoffs) at Acrisure Stadium.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl

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