Training camp is finally here, even genuine practices. This is the first time all year that we, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, have had the opportunity to take the field in any capacity, which is an all-important step in the process of evaluating your offseason decisions and beginning to put the puzzle together that will shape the upcoming season.
The Steelers are coming off of an 8-8 season, but while they will default to clichés about how you are what your record says you are, they know they have the potential to be much better. Still, they enter training camp with some questions to answer.
They are no different than any team in the NFL in that regard, in any year. Nobody comes to practice as a finished product. So during this series, we are going to highlight some of the most significant storylines that figure to play out over the course of training camp.
Headline: Rebuilding, establishing running game
As we hear pretty much every year, Art Rooney II said earlier this offseason that he wants to see the Steelers run the ball better—not necessarily more frequently, but more efficiently when they do. The 2019 season was a particularly bad year, but not without extenuating circumstances.
It started with the loss of Ben Roethlisberger in Week Two. You lose your quarterback and every aspect of your offense is going to suffer, plain and simple. Then you add in injuries to each of your three running backs, including a series of injuries to your Pro Bowl starter, and you’re going to have issues.
On top of that, the offensive line had its worst run-blocking season since probably 2013, the last time that that they have ever fired a coach (as opposed to allowing his contract to expire). That would be Jack Bicknell, Jr., who spent all of one season here before they landed Mike Munchak and he helped spearhead a golden age of offensive line play.
Last season was the first under Shaun Sarrett as the head offensive line coach, to throw everything else on top of the pile as far as the run game goes, so there were a lot of things to adjust to. Plus, Benny Snell was a rookie, not really firing on all cylinders. Jaylen Samuels was injured early and generally had a down year.
You have to think that, provided better health in the backfield, the running game should greatly benefit from that alone. A healthy Conner by himself would be a huge lift, but there is reason to be excited by what a second-year Snell will look like, and then you finally have the promise of a homerun threat with Anthony McFarland.
Roethlisberger coming back will have the biggest impact on the running game outside of the health of the backfield, but we’ve also heard multiple people mention the influence of Matt Canada on the ground game—including from both Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, so those are some pretty significant endorsements. Still, putting this all together in a truncated offseason is tricky.