Over the course of the past three seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers have ranked 32nd, 29th, and 32nd in rushing yardage. They have ranked 32nd, 30th, and 24th in yards per attempt, as well, although at times they have had success putting the ball in the end zone—they ranked seventh in rushing touchdowns in 2018.
Globally speaking, however, it is overwhelmingly apparent that the run game is an issue, and it is also overwhelmingly apparent that there are many facets of the equation involved that are causing them to be an ineffective team running the ball.
It’s something that head coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged in the middle portions of this past season, though their efforts to get things back on track were thwarted by James Conner’s health and the fact that they repeatedly dug themselves into holes.
Tomlin reiterated the obvious early today during his end-of-season press conference when asked what were the particular failures of this unit. “I think when you’re dead last in anything, it’s all of the above”, he said. “We better assess it as such. We will not accept our current position in that area. We cannot. We’ve got to attack that, and we will”.
The Steelers finished the 2020 season with 373 rushing attempts, the 28th-most in the league, for just 1351 yards and 12 touchdowns at a mere 3.6 yards per carry. Including the postseason, they were held to under 100 rushing yards in 11 of their final 12 games.
And yet they picked up more than 100 yards in each of their first five games, and had four individual 100-yard efforts in that span. Their early-season success on the ground continues to baffle relative to the struggles that they would have later in the year.
Outside of availability issues, Conner did have a reasonable season for himself. He rushed for 721 yards on only 169 carries, averaging 4.3 yards per attempt, with six rushing touchdowns, and another 215 yards as a receiver.
In his second season, running back Benny Snell rushed for only 368 yards on 111 attempts, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry, though he had four scores as well. Rookie Anthony McFarland added 113 yards on 33 attempts at 3.4 yards per. Jaylen Samuels only had nine attempts for 28 yards. Their biggest play came from Ray-Ray McCloud, who had a 58-yard end-around to account for the majority of his 65 rushing yards.
Conner is set to be an unrestricted free agent, as are three of the Steelers’ offensive linemen, including two starters, and the other who could potentially be a starter. Personnel, as Tomlin suggested, is only one issue, however. There is also scheme, technique, etc.