The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: The Steelers will have an effective running game in 2020.
Explanation: This might feel like a low standard. Perhaps it is. But then again, running games are not exactly prioritized in the NFL right now. In 2018, the Steelers did have a somewhat efficient running game. In 2019, they were one of the worst in efficiency, regardless of usage rate.
A healthy James Conner, Benny Snell in his second season, and Anthony McFarland. I like that. That’s a group of running backs that can do something. Conner is out there looking like Conan the Barbarian right now. I fully expect Snell to report in great shape and add to his explosiveness. McFarland already looks readymade to be a player who can create his own offense, albeit on limited touches.
More than that, getting Ben Roethlisberger back will help to open up the running game as well. The threat of the pass with him under center is much more imposing than with Mason Rudolph, so they will have to respect him much more.
The play of the offensive line last season is I think not representative of what they are still capable of doing. But either way, the left guard position should be stronger in the run game than it was a year ago. And if Zach Banner is a right tackle, well, we already know he can run block as a tackle-eligible.
Counting on Conner or Roethlisberger to stay healthy throughout the 2020 season is a questionable bet right now that not many people should be taking. Conner has more of an injury history, but Roethlisberger is coming back from a major injury to his throwing arm, and you simply don’t know how that can hold up.
Meanwhile, even with extenuating circumstances, the offensive line clearly regressed last year, and the running game was never their strong suit anyway. Alejandro Villanueva was never a great run blocker. Maurkice Pouncey is not the same as he once was. And Mike Munchak isn’t coming back. The Steelers would be lucky to get even average play out of the run game this year.