With the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 regular season opener against the New England Patriots just a few more days away, several in the local media still seem obsessed with what the team plans to do offensively regarding run-pass balance. On Thursday, Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner held his weekly media session and right out of the chute he was asked if he wants to have a balanced run-pass ratio in 2019.
“I think you’ve always heard me say it’s the ability to do what you want to do as often as you can and sustain it,” Fichtner said, according to a steelers.com transcript. “To me, balance is getting first downs and finding a way to eke out 10 yards in three plays. I don’t necessarily think it has to be run or pass, we have to get it done some way or another, and that’s the job. I like where were at in our run game from the standpoint of older Jaylen [Samuels], older James [Conner], we’ve got some young guys in there, so that’s pretty exciting.”
So, what does that mean specifically regarding James Conner and Jaylen Samuels?
“I think they complement each other really well,” Fichtner said. “James really came on last year, and his role increased so much, given the circumstances at beginning of the year. So, he’s shown the ability to do that. When he was out [injured], Jaylen got an opportunity to actually be a feature back, and that meant first, second, and third down. When they are both healthy you might be able to use both of them to their strengths that they bring to the table. And Jaylen is very accomplished as possible route runner, as a possible protector, so you hope that signs of growth will be in that area of our group.”
Last season, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger attempted 675 total pass attempts. Non quarterbacks rushed a total of 310 times so you can see why media members who don’t pay close attention to the finer points of the game of football and analytics ask these kinds of very outdated questions. One media member even asked Fichtner on Thursday if Roethlisberger’s 675 total pass attempts last season were too many.
“If it leads to more team wins, I think you want to take on the characteristics of your team,” Fichtner said. “It’s always going to be about winning at the end of the day. I think every year your team is different. And you talk about it, offense, defense, special teams, we have to know our fit in that role. Like I said, if it’s scoring less points, protecting the ball more, so be it. If it’s throwing it more, so be it. If it’s running it more, so be it. Whatever at the end of the day is we find a way to win for our team. And I think our guys are really into that right now. I’d be more concerned about ball protection. We protect it, will be a tough out.”
As I pointed out several times since the 2018 season concluded, the Steelers offense had to some of the worst average starting field position in the NFL last season. On top of that, while Conner certainly showed a lot of promise as a runner throughout the season, the Steelers run play success rate still was far from where it needed to be. The same goes for Samuels as well. The Steelers don’t necessarily need to run more in 2019, they just need to run better when they do run. also, running back and wide receiver screens are essential an extension of the running game and it’s distributing as to how many people still can’t grasp that simple concept.
At least one good question was asked of Fichtner on Thursday regarding Conner and Samuels and it revolved around how the two might possibly be used in 2019 in regard to playing time.
“I think that’s all part of the thing,” Fichtner said. “Maybe early in the season, we didn’t do that. I know backs don’t really like to come out of the game. We didn’t take Le’Veon [Bell] out either, but there’s time that they need that rest. There’s no doubt. James [Conner] doesn’t want that rest, but you’ve got to give it to him. I’ve said that before about the tight end position. It’s the same thing. Other than the five lineman and the quarterback, no one plays a whole game. They just can’t. The ability to get those guys a series and off a series, and maybe some third-down, and maybe one short yardage, maybe one goal line, that to me is so much cleaner this year because you have an experienced backup runner.”
Fichtner is obviously talking about Samuels being a rookie last season and having to learn more about the running back position as well as the playbook throughout the year. While he did carry the football some in college, Samuels was moved around a lot in the North Carolina State offense over four seasons as he wasn’t primarily a running back. Fichnter explained all that on Thursday.
“Last year in this point in time, Jaylen had never lined up in a real game and taken a real snap and run the ball,” Fichtner said Thursday. “When we took him as a rookie, he never played running back. He was a tight end-slash-fun player that did fun things like wildcat. He did all of that. He never got the ball handed to him so that was a big change for him as it was for James Washington. James Washington came out of a system that he played on the right side. He ran a go, post and a hitch, never motioned. Now he plays on the left side. He’s got to motion. He’s got to play inside, outside. He’s got to route adjust. He’s got to have the whole route tree. His development is great, too.”
If it’s any consolation, Samuels looked good carrying the football late last season and especially in the Steelers win over the Patriots. He rushed for 142 yards on 19 carries against the Patriots in addition to catching two passes for another 30 yards. That success against the Patriots and all, he’ll be lucky to get more than five carries Sunday night with Conner starting this contest.