The Pittsburgh Steelers’ running game hasn’t been a volume enterprise for some time now. They are routinely in the bottom half or even bottom third of the league in terms of total number of rushing attempts, but they usually are able to post reasonable efficiency numbers per rush.
That was not the case last season, which was something of a perfect storm in terms of offensive futility. While the lead cause was the early injury to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, costing him 14 games, the running back room was also dealt blow after blow. They ended up cycling through six different backs by season’s end, and each of their top three missed time due to injury.
None more than their lead runner, James Conner, who had to pick things up late in the year to boost his rushing average up to 4.0 yards per carry, having averaged 4.5 in each of his first two seasons. Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell, who both missed time due to injury as well, posted averaged below 4.0, and the team as a whole rushed for an average of 3.7 yards per attempt, which ranked 30th in the NFL.
Without a stable passing game and a running back group that was banged up—not to mention the tight ends as well—the offensive line was dealt an uneven hand, but even they could have done better. Still, Conner, as the leader of the rushing game, expressed his support for the guys upfront when speaking to the media earlier today.
“I’ve got faith in each and every one of those guys”, he said of his linemen. “Some different pieces” will be in the mix this year, but he said that “the standard is the standard for offensive linemen. You’ve got an elite group, the way they come to work every day, the relationship that they have with each other, those kind of things that can’t be measured”.
“I could just see it every day”, he said about the bond that exists within the offensive line group, and the work they put in during practice. “I know that’s an elite group. I’m excited to be in the protection game with them, to run behind them, and just take the field with them. Definitely have an elite group.
The Steelers boast three former Pro Bowl players in their starting lineup in Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Alejandro Villanueva. Matt Feiler has been a primary starter for the past two season, while either Stefen Wisniewski (if Feiler starts at tackle) or one of Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor (if he starts at guard) will be the new face taking over as a consequence of Ramon Foster’s retirement.
In 2018, the Steelers only carried the ball 345 times, but they did so averaging 4.2 yards per attempt, and scored 16 touchdowns on the ground. An efficient running game is much more valuable than a voluminous one. That’s what the team is looking to reproduce in 2020, and Conner believes they still have the line capable of accomplishing that.