Credit Due To James Saxon In Helping Rebuild Running Game

The Pittsburgh Steelers made a lot of moves during the offseason last year, somewhat out of character for a generally conservative group when it comes to utilizing outside resources aside from the draft to enhance their team.

Despite the fact that they wound up adding two starters and two other players that logged starts for at least half the season due to injury, I believe most would still regard the acquisition of offensive line coach Mike Munchak as the biggest move that the organization was able to make between the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

No doubt, Munchak certainly had his influence on the team’s performance last year. His fingerprints are all over the improvements, for example, in right tackle Marcus Gilbert’s improved technique in pass protection. And it’s perfectly reasonable to see a similar level of improvement with his second year working with these linemen, now that he has a better feel for what they are capable of running.

If there is one downside to the hiring of Munchak, perhaps it is that it has had the effect of overshadowing the impact of another newly-signed coach, running backs coach James Saxon.

Saxon previously held the same position with the Vikings before wholesale changes found himself on the open market. After Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson chose to switch to the Vikings, perhaps with the belief that he had a better opportunity for upward mobility, the Steelers added Saxon to their own staff.

Under Saxon’s guidance, second-year running back Le’Veon Bell broke the franchise’ all-purpose single-season yards from scrimmage record after amassing 1361 yards on the ground and another 854 yards through the air.

Not only that, he was also highly efficient, gaining 4.7 yards per carry and 10.3 yards per reception. His 2215 total yards on 373 total touches translated to an average gain of just under six yards per touch.

The misfortune is that Saxon didn’t have much to work with beyond Bell. LeGarrette Blount had some success early on, including a 100-yard game and two touchdowns within the first three weeks of the season, but he quickly grew frustrated and disgruntled as his workload decreased in light of Bell’s success.

The rookie running backs behind them had scarce opportunities, and struggled to make the most of them, but Saxon certainly deserves his share of the credit for Bell’s breakout season, during which he led the AFC in rushing and total yardage and was named to the first-team All-Pro teams.

This year, he will be tasked with building a depth chart at running back, rather than just having one featured running. He should have a much more willing and disciplined pupil in the veteran DeAngelo Williams, while Dri Archer and Josh Harris figure to make the second-year jump that is so often discussed amongst young players.

Wilson carved out a nice reputation for himself in Pittsburgh, and was widely rumored to be the favorite to assume the offensive coordinator position if not for a freak house fire that left him with severe burns. But with that said, Saxon has had a trail of success before coming to Pittsburgh, and his early returns have been impressive. His addition to the coaching staff has been somewhat underrated, in my estimation.

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