The Pittsburgh Steelers are a team nearing desperation. While they have locked up a playoff spot, nothing is certain about this team heading into the postseason. They have lost three games in a row, Ben Roethlisberger looks like a shell of himself and their running game ranks second worst in the NFL.
Not only are the Steelers’ 88.9 yards only above the Houston Texans’ 86 yards per game on the ground, their 3.7 yards per rush average throughout the 2020 regular season is tied for the worst in the league with the Atlanta Falcons. One of the reasons their average is so low is because their attempts, 339, ranks 6th lowest in the league.
So, are the Steelers’ running woes just because they haven’t been running it enough? Is it because they can’t run it effectively when they do decide to run the ball? Or is it the people who are being deployed to run the ball?
James Conner has been the primary running back for the Steelers throughout the 2020 regular season, but his statistics have been anything but impressive. Here are his statistics through 11 games:
Not really inspiring numbers for a man who has been given the vast majority of carries when he is in the game. What about Benny Snell Jr.? Is he the answer at running back? His statistics aren’t impressive either, but his Week 15 performance vs. the Cincinnati Bengals could provide hope for the future.
Here are his regular season statistics thus far:
But if we look closer at the Week 15 performance in a losing effort on Monday Night Football, is Snell the answer for the lagging Steelers’ running game?
Week 15 was the first time in a long time the Steelers’ offense looked capable running the football, and as Mike Tomlin said in his Tuesday press conference, the Steelers would have likely been able to run the ball better if the score would have been different. More importantly, Tomlin left the door open for Snell to possibly be the running back moving forward.
“We’ll ponder those possibilities.” Tomlin said. “You have to admit, Benny [Snell] was an awesome element of play for us in the last game where we didn’t have a lot of awesome elements of play. His efforts were appreciated, so I’m sure he will have an opportunity to be impactful in this one regardless of James [Conner]’s availability.”
Snell is not a game-breaking type of back, but he is consistent and a hard-nosed runner. Most would say he certainly has the look of a Steelers running back. During his media availability on Thursday, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said he saw this small outburst of the Steelers’ running game coming.
“I saw it coming a little bit of the week practice, saw it coming because Benny Snell is a competitor. He didn’t want to be denied. He brought a lot of energy and juice to that game, and I felt like we were more consistent running the ball.” Fichtner said.
“We still had our pitfalls. We had a third-and-1 and we didn’t make it. When we can hit situational football at 100 percent, then you are going to be winning games more times than not winning games. Situationally is where the run game has to really keep coming whether it is red zone, whether it is short yardage, whether it is goal line, that type of thing.”
What fans want to know is the same question asked to Tomlin on Tuesday. Is there any chance Snell replaces Conner, even when Conner returns to the team on Sunday? Fichtner wouldn’t go that far, but he did say he sees Snell as being a capable “bell cow” running back for the Steelers.
“He has. He has done a good job with ball security. He is a fighter. He’s got pretty good contact balance. He usually falls forward.” Fichtner added. “I know it means an awful lot to him. I say that because I see him. I see the time and the effort and the things he does to be a professional. I’m excited with him right now, but I’m also excited that it looks like James [Conner] might be coming back to us. Two of those guys being “healthy” might be just we need to help pick up our run game.”
What is curious about Fichtner’s last statement is the Steelers have proven they are not willing to run a dual running back system. The closest they have gotten to such a thing would be at the start of games when they give a specific running back a drive. After that, it usually falls on the shoulders of Conner to handle the vast majority of the duties handled by the running backs.
Will things change after Snell’s solid performance in Week 15? I wouldn’t hold my breathe, but the Steelers are hoping their running game will be the magic elixir for not just the offense, but the entire team.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the black and gold as they prepare for the Indianapolis Colts at Heinz Field in Week 16.