Steelers team president Art Rooney II does not commonly interact with the public on the subject of the organization’s football plans. There usually is a postseason talk with reporters, and occasionally he will take questions directly from the fan base in an event organized by Steelers Nation United. So when he says something substantial about the state of the Steelers, it tends to gain attention.
“We have to start with a commitment to the running game,” Rooney told reporters in January. “And that’s something that I’m not sure we’ve always had.”
“We’ve got to be a lot better in running,” Rooney told fans two months later. “Certainly we don’t want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers being last in the league in rushing again, ever.”
These can be two different things, and it’s essential the Steelers don’t confuse them. A commitment to running the ball need not be the same as a commitment to being good at running the ball. Super Bowl champions tends to understand the difference.
The football people in the organization responded to Rooney’s challenges with a variety of actions that climaxed with the selection of All-American running back Najee Harris of Alabama with the 24th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, followed by three selections designed to offer more flexibility and depth with the blocking schemes up front.
“We were very excited that he was there for us. When we went through our scenarios, it was an easy decision by us to say if Najee Harris is available, we will pick him,” general manager Kevin Colbert told reporters. “He’s an exciting player. He’s a three-dimensional running back. … It was easy to identify him, quite honestly.”
Now the trick is not to be seduced or coerced into an overemphasis on the run.
The Steelers ranked last in the league in rushing in the 2021 season, as Rooney referenced. That statistic specifically refers to total rushing yards gained. However easy it is to gauge, it can be a deceptive measure of a team’s efficacy in that category.
A team can fare poorly in total rushing yards and still be at least acceptable, and possibly even exceptional with its running game.
A more accurate measure of a team’s ability to run the ball would be yards per attempt. In that category, the Steelers also finished last. It’s hard to be terrible in that department and still be a fully functioning offense. Their abject misery on average — 3.6 yards per carry — was a half-yard poorer than any other team that entered the 2020 playoffs with a winning record.
In the past decade, only three other teams finished last in yards per carry and still finished above the .500 mark, only two others reached the playoffs and only the 2011 New York Giants advanced once there. They became Super Bowl champions, but only after improving on their regular-season performance by 20 percent.
The Steelers also were 28th in rushing touchdowns and 28th in attempts. It’s important to note, however, that running the ball a lot has not been a prerequisite to postseason success, which is where Pittsburgh fell short in 2020.
None of the teams that reached the conference championship games in 2020 ranked higher than 12th in rush attempts. That was where the Packers stood. The Bills were 17th, the Chiefs 23rd and the Bucs 29th.
Some analysts criticized the Steelers for choosing Harris with their first pick. Popular analyst Warren Sharp of SharpFootballAnalysis.com ripped the selection by pointing to the team’s poor recent run blocking and stating, “Imagine thinking a RB will solve this.” There were multiple issues with that statement, starting with the fact that the line from the past several seasons had been completely dismantled, and the Steelers went on to select linemen they expect to contribute in the third (center Kendrick Green) and fourth (tackle Dan Moore).
imagine thinking a RB will solve this:
Steelers O-Line run block rankings:
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) April 30, 2021
The line certainly will need to be better in 2021, which is why the Steelers were content to see Maurkice Pouncey retire, and to allow left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and left guard Matt Feiler to walk in free agency.
The only starter back in place is right guard David DeCastro. Last year’s fourth-round pick, Kevin Dotson, will take over at left guard. Zach Banner will be back at right tackle after injuring his knee in the 2020 opener and missing the remainder of the year. Chuks Okorafor, who took over at that spot, will move to left tackle. Green, if he succeeds, will start at center. This group may be better or worse than last year’s, but it will not be the same.
Neither will the approach. The Steelers’ trapping schemes haven’t worked great for a while now. They’ve ranked in the top third of the league in yards per attempt only twice in the past 10 years and finished 22nd on average. Tomlin specifically referenced, in the news conference before the draft, “We’re capable of performing better than we have,” and by that he did not mean the Steelers in general. He meant the coaches in particular. There will be an altered approach under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
That should mean the Steelers running differently, and more effectively. If the goal were to be the Ravens (who finished below the Steelers in the 2020 AFC North) or the Titans (who won the same number of playoff games), then a commitment to running the ball more would make sense.