How the Steelers are fixing the running game this offseason

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with Steelers fans over the last few weeks on who, where, or what the organization should do in about a week from now during the 2021 NFL Draft.

Anyone not living under a rock is aware that the Steelers running game fell from grace in 2020 to the bottom of the league – historic proportions for a team that has showcased Hall of Fame rushers such as Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis.

However, that doesn’t mean the best value for Pittsburgh lies in drafting a running back in the first round and that a top prospect back means an immediate fix to the Steelers rushing game.

The Steelers have already taken strides toward correcting the error of their ways from not only 2020, but also going back to 2019 – a Ben Roethlisberger-less season in which the team was criticized of running a “dink and dunk” offense.

The Steelers had done quite alright running the ball through their first six games in 2020 also. But somewhere it fell apart.

That somewhere was offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, who was the first to go this offseason as he was replaced by quarterbacks coach Matt Canada, a high-profile collegiate offensive mind who many speculated was brought in last year to groom as Fichtner’s successor.

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Next came the retirement of Maurkice Pouncey, who is no doubt in my mind a future Hall of Famer himself but was north of 30 and perhaps had his better days behind him (either physically or mentally, the latter which was the case with a costly bad snap against the Browns in the postseason).

Alejandro Villanueva, last year’s starting left tackle, is still a free agent and was not re-signed by the team either.

G/C B.J. Finney and OT Zach Banner were brought back this offseason. Banner was injured in the first game of 2020 and Finney was on another roster. Both could be improvements, but at the very least represent changes to last year’s front line. Starting LG Matt Feiler was allowed to pursue another contract with the Chargers as well, representing at least three new starters on the offensive line for 2021.

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For those banging the drum on a running back being added in the upcoming draft, I feel that’s a given but perhaps not a priority. Looking at the roster on paper, many have penciled in Banner as the left tackle, last year’s fourth-round pick Kevin Dotson as the left guard, Finney as the center, perennial All-Pro David DeCastro manning his right guard spot, and returning right tackle Chuks Okorafor, who took over for Banner at the spot, coming back too.

Some feel DeCastro had an off-year in 2020. That may have been due to lingering injuries which followed him into the regular season – or perhaps the changes around him with Pouncey declining on his left and Banner/Okorafor as new teammates on his right.

I don’t have any hesitations about DeCastro, and in fact, I wouldn’t necessarily pencil Dotson in at left guard just yet either, as Finney played in that spot for Ramon Foster many times in the past too.

That leaves my thought process to snagging an offensive tackle in the draft, someone who could be an insurance policy if Banner or Okorafor either don’t succeed or get injured. That tackle could anchor one edge of the line, an area where Villanueva was a revolving door in 2020.

Another draft pick, one I’m targeting in round two, should be for a center. That center could compete to start right away as a rookie, but it’s also not a guarantee. (It’s why I’m leery on where to place Finney in the lineup if he doesn’t find the bench instead and Dotson, who played well last season, does indeed move permanently to the left as a starter.)

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If the Steelers go with a tackle and center, that would mean the Steelers go two rounds deep without selecting a running back – which isn’t the end of the world.

As has been noted many times in my columns or episodes of the SCU Podcast, mid-round running backs have found a lot of success in the NFL. This year’s crop after the top three of Najee Harris, Travie Etienne, and Javonte Williams appear to be Ohio State’s Trey Sermon, Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell, and Oklahoma’s Rhamondre Stevenson.

Pittsburgh has spoken with all three, who could be available with their third-round pick, 87th overall.

Will any of them be an upgrade over what they have now?

I guess I’d debate we don’t know what the Steelers have now either. Are they sold on who Benny Snell or Anthony McFarland are? Why did they sign Kallen Ballage? And where does Jaylen Samuels, seemingly lost in the mix last season, fit into Canada’s plans? (Keep in mind that Snell is a multiple-time 100-yard rusher… when the Steelers have actually dedicated themselves to running the ball.)

My philosophy, and perhaps, draft strategy, would be to solidify the offensive line. I feel as if a center has to rank high on the list, within the first three picks.

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This year’s draft is deep at the tackle position, where the Steelers could even pass early and still end up with two selections at the spot before it’s said and done. (Especially, gasp, if they forego offense for a defensive pick in the first round!)

A lot of analytics-based draftniks prefer waiting on taking a running back.

They point out where top backs are often replaced by “afterthoughts” and do well based on the system. Tony Pollard subbing for Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas or Mike Davis subbing for Christian McCaffrey in Carolina are two prime examples.

Taking a highly rated rookie running back in the draft doesn’t secure a defacto “better running game” for the Steelers in 2021. I believe they can use a shot in the arm with talent, but that they definitely need to get the system in place too.

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The offseason moves with Banner, Finney, Joe Haeg, and Rashawn Coward are a step in that right direction. Getting a better play calling selection, other than run only on first down and then abandon running at all as the game goes on, should also improve immensely under Matt Canada.

Therefore whichever direction the Steelers go in about a week really can’t be a bad decision. Both tackle and running back are deep enough to take a shot at whomever they scout as the best player available when they’re on the clock. The center position candidates aren’t as strong this year, but that also means more teams may pass on them as they fall a bit deeper in the draft to, perhaps, a second or third-round choice.

Regardless, it appears everything is shaping up nicely for an improvement of the weakest part of the Steelers offense from 2020.

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