Prior to the arrival of Le’Veon Bell onto the scene and Pittsburgh, and really not until his second season, the Pittsburgh Steelers had rarely made prominent use of their running backs in the passing game outside of as an option for checkdowns. I have long thought that in hindsight Rashard Mendenhall could have been a much greater asset had he been drafted in 2013 and used the way Bell was, behind this offensive line and with the mindset now ingrained into the running back position in the passing game. But I digress.
Even with Bell gone, the Steelers still value the running back as a receiver. During the 2015 season, in which Bell missed 10 games due to injury and suspension, DeAngelo Williams had a career year as a receiver in 10 starts. Last year, James Conner, who didn’t catch the ball much in college, had 55 receptions for 497 yards and a receiving touchdown in just 13 games.
In spite of the fact that he threw the ball 47 times, however, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t get his running backs involved a ton on Sunday. Only six targets officially went to Conner and Jaylen Samuels combined (Samuels had another reception that was negated by penalty), tallying a combined five receptions for 46 yards.
Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner envisions that expanding as the season goes on. “There’s more to be made there”, he told reporters on Thursday when asked if the running backs will be a bigger part of the passing game this week, via a transcript of the pool interview provided by the team’s media department.
“There’s more to be made there. Ben knows that”, Fichtner said. “I think that there’s times where, just thoughts in general, if you can get it to them, they can make some plays”, he added, noting the 23-yard catch-and-run Conner had that was mostly yards after the catch following a broken tackle that prevented a third-and-short situation.
“That’s where we’ve got to be a little bit better, play a little bit more aggressive that way”, he said about getting more after the catch, seemingly not referring specifically to the running backs. “I didn’t think we played over-attentive, I just thought, once we caught the ball, and not to discredit their tackling ability, but we’ve got to be better” at picking up yards after the catch.
Neither of the running backs got much of an opportunity to carry the football, either, and there were also 15 plays in which the Steelers ran out of 00 personnel, which means there are five wide receivers o the field. Fichtner said that they tried and failed to establish the run early on, but once the Patriots pulled ahead (20-0 by halftime), there was little they could do to get the running game off the ground.