Everything's Rosie; Nix's return bolsters Steelers' run game
PITTSBURGH (AP) — There's a brutal quality to the brand of football Rosie Nix plays. It comes with the territory when you're 5-foot-11, 248 pounds, and your job requires you to lower your head and intentionally run full speed into opposing defenders who are either bigger or faster or both.
It's a gig the Pittsburgh Steelers fullback attacks with a menacing glee. He brings energy to the huddle, mostly because his presence typically means one thing: The Steelers are going to line up in a power formation, fire out and go.
"Not many guys want to do that role," guard David DeCastro said. "It's a dirty role."
Pittsburgh desperately needed Nix for that filthy work when he returned from a knee injury that sidelined him for six weeks. Finally healthy on Monday night against Miami, Nix provided the Steelers' running game with a jolt in a 27-14 victory that gave them their first winning streak in 11 months. Pittsburgh ran for a season-high 158 yards — the overwhelming majority on plays where Nix paved the way for James Conner — and spent the final three quarters pushing the winless Dolphins around.
It was a throwback performance. The Steelers (3-4) might need it to be repeatable if they want to entertain any shot at staying in playoff contention in the jumbled AFC.
"We got back to what we've been best at doing, just kind of power football," right tackle Matt Feiler said. "We wanted to get Rosie back in and back comfortable since he'd missed some time."
The offense has certainly missed him. Pittsburgh had grown increasingly reliant on the shotgun in recent years, and when Mason Rudolph took over at quarterback for the injured Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2, the Steelers turned to it almost exclusively to help ensure Rudolph — who never took a direct snap from center in four years while running the Air Raid offense at Oklahoma State — was comfortable.
That comfort, however, also limited what the Steelers could do on the ground. Defenses crowded the line of scrimmage, daring the inexperienced Rudolph to throw. Conner — a Pro Bowler for the first time last season after taking over for Le'Veon Bell — found little room to move. The only consistent success Pittsburgh had running the ball over the first six games came against Cincinnati on Sept. 30, when they relied heavily on the Wildcat formation.
That changed against Miami. On Pittsburgh's second possession, Rudolph lined up under center with Conner behind him and Nix as the upback. Rudolph turned to his left and handed the ball to Conner going up the middle. A textbook block by Nix gave Conner enough room to dash 25 yards, his second-longest carry of the season.
It set the tone on a night Conner ran for 23 times for 145 yards and a touchdown, his first 100-yard performance in 12 games. Eighteen of those carries came with Rudolph in front of Conner instead of next to him and with Nix and reserve lineman Zach Banner on the field to provide some extra heft.
"Rosie's presence is significant, not only in terms of what he's capable of doing, but the energy it brings the other guys because they worked with him in the past," coach Mike Tomlin said. "So, he has that emotional bank account with the guys. When they see him, they know what it means."
Doing it against the reeling Dolphins is one thing. Doing it against AFC South-leading Indianapolis (5-2) on Sunday — and with Conner's status uncertain while he deals with a shoulder injury — is another. Such is the state of Pittsburgh's fragile running back picture that Samuels — who hasn't played in a month after getting hurt against Baltimore on Oct. 6 — will likely be the starter if Conner can't go, with former practice squad player Trey Edmunds in the mix behind Samuels. The Steelers also signed former University of Pittsburgh running back Darrin Hall to the practice squad on Wednesday for depth.
Samuels has been a feature back just once in his brief career, when he racked up 172 total yards in a victory over New England last December. He says he'll be ready if he finds himself on the field with Nix.
"That's what we do," Samuels said. "We run the ball. We're the Pittsburgh Steelers. We're physical. We got the big guys up front to do it, so why not?"
NOTES: Conner, RB Benny Snell Jr. (knee), C Maurkice Pouncey (calf), G Ramon Foster (concussion), TE Vance McDonald (not injury related) and DT Dan McCullers (ankle) did not practice on Wednesday. ... LB Anthony Chickillo was at the team's facility after misdemeanor charges against him stemming from an incident at a western Pennsylvania resort were dropped. Chickillo remains on the exempt list.