Mike Tomlin said the Pittsburgh Steelers won’t be bashful about their intentions. If that’s the case, there’s another descriptor they must be.
Greedy about their running back room. Right or wrong, like it or not, if Pittsburgh wants 2023 to be its Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots season with a punishing run game, its need to have the starters and the depth for it.
Make no mistake, the top two on the depth chart are cemented in place. Najee Harris is the team’s first-round pick from 2021, Jaylen Warren the diamond in the rough and, finally, a recent UDFA find for the Steelers. Those are and will be the top two players in 2023. But if Pittsburgh is committing to the run game it needs to protect ifself against injury. No longer are the Steelers a one-man-band in the backfield. With Warren emerging, Pittsburgh employed a committee approach. Harris working on first and second down, Warren on third down.
Pittsburgh has two backs with active and important roles in the offense. Meaning, the Steelers better have a #3 who can step in at a moment’s notice to cover if – and really, when – there’s an injury. Just in the way you need an extra wide receiver or cornerback behind your starters, another running back is important too.
If Ben Roethlisberger was still in his prime, the model would be different. Pittsburgh certainly wouldn’t be building this nasty, physical, run-first offense. Even with a limited running game, the Steelers could lean on Roethlisberger to run the show and use the RPO/screen/quick game as run extensions. The Steelers are confident in Kenny Pickett but he doesn’t have the keys or freedom Roethlisberger did. Not yet, anyway.
A shift in identity means a shift in priorities. Over the last five years, the #3 runner has been an afterthought, hardly ever seeing the field except for special teams. And as things currently stand, that’ll still be true to start 2023. But at some point, odds are Harris or Warren go down and having one of them to shoulder the load isn’t the plan. Both guys have the skillset to function in every-down roles but it’s probably not what the team wants after seeing the success and benefits 2022 brought.
Right now, the team’s #3 back is Anthony McFarland, and he never was the right fit for the Steelers’ offense. A smattering of names like Master Teague and Jason Huntley have light NFL resumes. Perhaps Benny Snell returns but he remains a free agent.
Of course, even if the Steelers draft a running back, it won’t be early. It won’t be on Day One or Day Two and probably not with that fourth-round pick either. We’re talking something later than that. If this team can pick up a fifth- or sixth-round selection, as I believe Omar Khan will try, that’s where the conversation can begin. Pittsburgh also has a pair of seventh-round picks they could use one on, too. The profile they look for will likely remain the same. Big and powerful who faced Power 5 competition and had production. Names who fit that bill are always harder to find. Some suggestions include Northwestern’s Evan Hull, Pitt’s Izzy Abanikanda (though he’s likely to be drafted too early), Texas’ Roschon Johnson (Merril Hoge was at his Pro Day), and Kentucky’s Chris Rodriguez.
There’s no doubt Pittsburgh has greater needs. Defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver, offensive tackle, they all rank higher. But on Day Three, when the Steelers are rounding out their roster, keep running back in mind. Pittsburgh doesn’t need it now. But at some point mid-season, it might.