It seems to be something of an annual tradition. Art Rooney II says that the Pittsburgh Steelers need to run the ball better. Then Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert say the same thing a short time later. Then they draft a running back, usually in the mid rounds, between the third and the fifth. And then they either don’t run the ball much or well, sometimes both.
The 2020 offseason has been no different. We heard the same messages from the same personnel up on high, and we go our new running back as well, this time in the form of Anthony McFarland, a fourth-round pick out of Maryland, who at least adds a speed dimension to the backfield that was lacking.
He joins a group that already includes James Conner, Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Kerrith Whyte, and Trey Edmunds, all of whom finished the 2019 season on the 53-man roster, though arguably only the first two players are near sure bets to make the team this year.
Conner is the most talented back on the roster, perhaps by a good margin, making the Pro Bowl in 2018. He is physical as a runner but is also capable of catching the ball adeptly, is very strong in pass protection, and is capable of making defenders miss—he has had surprising success doing this on receptions over the course of his career.
But he has also been plagued by injuries in each of his first three seasons, particularly last year. Snell still has a lot to prove after a little over 100 carries as a rookie, while Samuels has to fight for a roster spot after a down season. Whyte and Edmunds are nothing more than depth.
For Pro Football Focus, all of this amounts to the 23rd-ranked backfield as we head into the 2020 season. “James Conner replaced Le’Veon Bell’s production nicely in 2018, averaging 4.5 yards per carry and posting a 74.8 rushing grade. Last season, Conner’s rushing grade dropped to 66.8 and he averaged 4.0 yards per carry”, the article reads. “Backup Benny Snell Jr. posted near-identical numbers with a 65.8 rushing grade and 3.9 yards per carry. Both players return as the one-two punch, with fourth-round pick Anthony McFarland Jr. set to compete for carries”.
It goes on to note McFarland’s threat for big plays, which the team has lacked, and cited Conner as the best bet to produce in the passing game, arguing that he will get a chance to be a three-down back while arguing that the best approach for the team may be to divide responsibilities, and even emphasis work in the passing game for Conner.
I could see Snell shouldering more of the load in the running game, in which he looked capable as a rookie. In just 166 snaps played on offense last season, he carried the ball 108 times, so the good majority of the time he was on the field, he was pounding the rock.