Can the Steelers' offensive improvement vs. Raiders be trusted?

PITTSBURGH -- There's no such thing as mojo.

At least, that's what Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday following his team's 23-18 win against the Las Vegas Raiders.

A week after asserting his offense lost the mojo it had in the preseason, Tomlin downplayed his now-viral quote.

"I'll be really transparent with you," Tomlin said in his weekly news conference. "I didn't mean it last week when I said it. You guys asked me the question repeatedly in a bunch of different ways and I've given you the same answer and so sometimes I just give you a colorful answer with a word like mojo just so you guys can run with it and we all can move on with our day.

"The guys that know me, they know there's nothing mystical about performance from my mentality or our mentality. We work, we improve and then we go play. Sometimes man, that cycle doesn't come quick enough. We got to stand in settings like this and absorb a lot of questions. They get repetitive and so I gave you a little something.

"I don't subscribe to mojo or intangible-like things and all of that."

OK, fine, mojo isn't real. But is the Steelers' offensive improvement?

The Steelers turned in their best offensive performance of the admittedly young season against the Raiders: 333 yards, 17 first downs, 5.6 yards per play. Not only did the Steelers score their first first-quarter touchdown of 2023, but they also finally picked up a first-quarter first down.

Though Kenny Pickett had his lowest completion percentage of the season -- 57.1% -- he threw two touchdowns in the same game for the first time in his career and had a season-high passing 235 yards. On the ground, Steelers rushers put up 105 yards -- more than the first two weeks combined.

"I just feel like we're getting better in all areas, and that's a reasonable expectation and mindset to have this time of year," Tomlin said. "Our business is to win games, no doubt, you step in stadiums, you're called to win, that's the focus, but in the pursuit of those victories, man, you got to build and it just feels like we're getting better."

After two weeks of an inconsistent offense, the Steelers appear to be on the right track as they face a Houston defense that held quarterback Trevor Lawrence and the Jacksonville Jaguars to just 17 points, despite allowing 340.7 yards per game, 4.29 yards per rush and a 73% completion percentage.

"I think we're on track to getting it back," Pickett said of the offense's mojo. "I mean it's never a perfect game. There's things that we wish we had back and there's plays that's always going to be the case, but I think we're definitely getting towards that step that we need to have back." Flawless? Hardly. But in Sunday's performance, the Steelers put together elements of the offense that had been missing in the first two weeks and opened up the playbook more, potentially laying out a roadmap of success for the rest of the season.

"The more success you have, the more you're controlling the game scenarios, the more you're on schedule, the more possession downs you win, the more concept diversity you have," Tomlin said Tuesday. "And you see pocket movement and play action and misdirection passes and screen game and quick game and all of the things that really do a good job of keeping defenses off balance."

The biggest difference-maker in beating the Raiders was the return of the running game. Not only did the Steelers gain more than 100 rushing yards for the first time this year, they stayed committed to the ground game with 31 carries. Against the Browns, the Steelers had 21 carries, and a week earlier against the 49ers, they had just 10, partially the result of staring down a 20-point hole early in the second quarter.

By committing to the run against the Raiders, the Steelers were able to utilize -- and be successful with -- more play-action passing. Like the Raiders, the Texans have allowed 4.3 yards per carry, while the Browns and 49ers have held offenses to 2.8 and 3.7 yards per carry, suggesting the Steelers should have an easier time replicating their recent ground game success in Week 4.

"When we run the ball, it opens up a lot," running back Najee Harris said. "That's our identity. We got to run the ball. That's who we are."

Nearly 28% of Pickett's dropbacks Sunday came out of play action, and he completed 6 of 8 passing attempts for 61 yards and a third-quarter touchdown to tight end Pat Freiermuth. A week earlier against the Browns, Pickett threw out of play action on 15.6% of dropbacks, and in the loss to the 49ers, that percentage was even lower at 5.9%. On the season, Pickett is 12 of 16 out of play action for 159 yards, 9.9 yards per attempt, two touchdowns and zero interceptions.

"You need a run game to be able to run your play action stuff, or it's not going to be as effective," Pickett said after the game. "So it was really good to have effective runs -- 3, 4, 5 yards -- whatever we were getting just to keep 'em honest, and then we could pop some play action and then help them run as well."

A big factor in the improved run game was a better performance by the Steelers' offensive line. The Raiders, who've allowed an average of 347.7 yards per game, weren't the same kind of defensive challenge the group faced in the 49ers and Browns, but they still had their hands full with edge rusher Maxx Crosby. Instead of throwing everything at Crosby as they did with Nick Bosa and Myles Garrett, the offensive line tried a more holistic approach to neutralize the defense.

"I think the biggest thing is we just tried to -- I wouldn't say show less attention -- but we needed to run more of our offense and not shut down half of it based off of one person," offensive tackle Dan Moore Jr. said. "Still showing [Crosby] respect but also opening up our offense, and he got to us a little bit today, but we'll get that cleaned up."

Though Crosby broke through in pass protection with six pressures and one sack, the Steelers' line did a better job in run blocking after meeting with Harris prior to the game to get on the same page. It's a recipe that appears to have the Steelers offense on the right track -- and perhaps, with a little bit of mojo.

"We talked about what runs we think that works best that they like, and they asked me what I like," Harris said after Sunday's win. " ... The o-line won the game for us, just them executing. We're just going to get better. It's only the third game. We've got 14 more. We're just going upwards now. That's our trajectory."