Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers’ run game struggled in 2019, but can they make a comeback in 2020? (Philip G. Pavely/USA TODAY Sports)

In 2019 the Pittsburgh Steelers suffered from a very bad run game. In 2019 the Steelers had a total of 1447 yards on 395 carries. This gave them an average of only 3.9 yards per carry. Several individuals running backs on other teams outperformed the entire Pittsburgh Steelers backfield in 2019. However, the blame does not fall entirely on the running backs.

What Happened?

Everybody knows that in 2019, future Hall of Fame quarterback Big Ben Roethlisberger was injured in week 2 in a game against the Seahawks. This forced sophomore Mason Rudolph and rookie Devlin Hodges to take the helm and throw the rock. The bad part was that both Rudolph and Hodges were not ready to take this step forward in their careers.

Randy Fincher, the offensive coordinator and former QB coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers knew this as well. Because of their lack of preparation, the Steelers ran far too many designed check-downs and short passes. This worked on some occasions and allowed for open looks on deep balls. However, Rudolph and Hodges lacked the poise and experience to make these long passes consistently. This allowed defenses to load the box, as they didn’t need to fear the deep balls and only needed to worry about the short passing threats.

Coincidentally this also meant that the running backs had to run through more players if they wanted to get more than 3 yards. This excessive contact led to injures to James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, and Benny Snell Jr. These injuries forced them to pick up and play less experienced and less talented players in the running back position throughout the year, resulting in their poor performance.

So now many people will ask how the outcome will be different in the 2020 season. The obvious answer is the return of Ben Roethlisberger. However, he is not the only factor. With the addition of Derek Watt and rookie Anthony McFarland Jr., the Steelers’ backfield has many more weapons.

Ben Roethlisberger

How Big Ben will help is a no brainer. Unlike Rudolph of Hodges, he is a threat in the passing game. In 2018, his last healthy year, he led the NFL in passing yards. So now that there is a known veteran presence at quarterback, defenses will be hesitant to stack the box and will be more focused on stopping the passing game instead of the run game.

 Another element Roethlisberger brings is his ability to read defenses. Both Rudolph and Hodges were unable to consistently read defenses pre-snap and could not call audibles on plays. Ben Roethlisberger on the other hand is very skilled at pre and post-snap reads, allowed him to efficiently alter plays so that the offense has the advantage and not the other way around.

Derek Watt

When he played for the LA Chargers, Derek Watt as not known as an offensive playmaker. However, the fullback played a lot better than one would assume. He blocked extremely well at Wisconsin and LA and allowed players such as Melvin Gordan, and Austin Eckler to have breakout runs. Watt was also a threat in the passing game in LA, with over 15 yards per catch. So he not only blocks and opens lanes for runners, he can take attention away from them, and force players to focus on him.

Anthony McFarland Jr.

When the Steelers needed more running backs mid-season, they picked up a player named Kerrith Whyte who was on the Bears practice squad. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry. How did he do that? Well, he was fast, very fast. However, Whyte lacked blocking and catching ability, so when he was on the field his actions were predictable. So, to replace him with a more complete back Anthony McFarland Jr. was drafted. This speedy back from Maryland was an excellent pass catcher and could block consistently. Once he gets into open lanes he should be able to break out for 5 yards every play, much like Kerrith Whyte.

Conclusion

A trifecta of Conner, Snell, and McFarland in the backfield is bound to make an impact on defenses. Especially with elite blocking from Derek Watt and powerful tight ends, Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald. This additional backfield support should help James Conner with his injuries and allow him to play a full season of football. This extra protection will also allow Snell to thrive. With Roethlisberger back at center, a top 10 offensive line, and their excellent weapons the Pittsburgh Steelers’ rushing attack should be back in the top half of the NFL for the 2020 season.

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