The Steelers are now in their offseason after failing to reach the playoffs in 2022, coming up just a game short of sneaking in as the seventh seed. They needed help in week 18 and only got some of it, so instead, they sat home and watched the playoffs with the rest of us.
On tap is figuring out how to be on the field in January and February instead of being a spectator. They started out 2-6, digging a hole that proved too deep to dig out of even if they managed to go 7-2 in the second half of the year.
Starting from the end of the regular season and leading all the way up to the beginning of the 2023 season, there are plenty of questions that need answering, starting with who will be the offensive coordinator. Which free agents will be kept? Who might be let go due to their salary? How might they tackle free agency with this new front office? We’ll try to frame the conversation in relevant ways as long as you stick with us throughout this offseason, as we have for many years.
Question: Can the run game open up next season with some explosive plays?
The person carrying the football will obviously have something to say when it comes to being able to break off long runs. They have to have the speed, vision, power, elusiveness, or some combination of the aforementioned, to turn most of them from 5- or 10-yard gains into 20-plus and more.
The Steelers’ featured runner, Najee Harris, doesn’t have much of a history of that. In fact, he had just one explosive run all of last season, a 36-yard gain in the first game after the bye and then none in the last eight. But he did have six explosive runs of 20-plus yards during his rookie season.
And Jaylen Warren also managed to record three rushes of 20-plus yards as a rookie last season despite only carrying the ball 77 times, which isn’t too bad of a ratio. They also got a few explosive runs from quarterback Kenny Pickett, wide receivers George Pickens and Steven Sims, and tight end-ish Connor Heyward.
But that’s not really what we’re talking about. Can this offense’s traditional run game become more explosive, presumably with the ingredients that it has now largely? They may be able to add another starting lineman, maybe even two, and perhaps they add another back with greater speed than they currently have. But the primary cast of characters isn’t going to change.
Partly, that’s a good thing. That means the offensive line will continue to build itself into a cohesive unit, and the better they do that, the more adeptly they can execute more complicated blocking assignments with a higher probability of springing the runner for a big gain.
But can they average, say, an explosive run per game or so, in that ballpark? The Steelers ranked tied for the eighth-lowest total of explosive runs last season, half as many or fewer than the top nine teams, with the Browns, Bills, and Bears able to reach 20-plus. Nine teams averaged one explosive run per game or better. Most of them had mobile quarterbacks, granted.