The Pittsburgh Steelers are out of Latrobe and back at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, also referred to as the South Side Facility. We are already into the regular season, where everything is magnified and, you know, actually counts. The team is working through the highs and lows and dramas that go through a typical Steelers season.
How are the rookies performing? What about the players that the team signed in free agency? Who is missing time with injuries, and when are they going to be back? What are the coaches saying about what they are going to do this season that might be different from how it was a year ago?
These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.
Question: Will Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert differ on the ‘run by committee’ philosophy?
One of the interesting though not surprising developments over the course of the past two weeks has been the attention paid to the running back, and specifically the running game behind starter James Conner. Conner spent much of his first season as a full-time starter functioning as a workhorse runner, amassing almost 21 touches per game, but he wasn’t even supposed to be the featured back.
That was Le’Veon Bell, who very much was that for the Steelers almost every time he was on the field. he has averaged an astonishing 25 touches per game in his career—which is largely why he has averaged more yards per game than anybody else in NFL history, but that isn’t unfamiliar territory for Conner.
During the team’s first eight games, he recorded 189 total touches, with 38 receptions and 151 carries for an average of 23.63 attempts per game. His attempts per game dropped after that, leading into the short-week Thursday game against the Panthers.
Tomlin has historically shown a preference for the featured runner. Willie Parker was his featured guy during his time, and then Rashard Mendenhall was. The only time they lacked that clear featured runner was in the off period between Mendenhall and Bell in which Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman primarily split duties.
Were the plans supposed to be changing already? If Bell were in Pittsburgh last year, how much playing time would Conner have gotten? Now that Conner is the lead back, Jaylen Samuels has a year and three starts under his belt, and Benny Snell is in the mix, too, will we see more distribution of the ball?
Kevin Colbert’s comments in recent days indicated that, but Tomlin in his post-draft press conference wouldn’t address the question, saying that it was too early. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and running backs coach Eddie Faulkner—both new or very new to their roles, mind you—will have some influence on how this shakes out as well.