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Mike Tomlin still resistant to the “running back by committee” approach

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When asked about using multiple running backs or just one featured guy during a fan call this week, Tomlin gave his thoughts about how to utilize players at the position

NFL: JUL 04 Steelers Training Camp Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Earlier this week, Steelers’ Head Coach Mike Tomlin participated in a fan forum phone call through Steelers Nation Unite. Taking question from a variety of fans across the country, Tomlin addressed some interesting inquiries in a very Tomlin-esque manner. Already featuring Tomlin‘s thoughts on 2019 rookies Devin Bush and Justin Layne, the Steelers head coach was also asked specifically about the running back position.

The question for Tomlin inquired about if the Steelers were going to take an approach of running back by committee (RBC) with the addition of Anthony McFarland Jr. in the 2020 NFL draft, or if Tomlin was going to continue with the featured running back approach.

“I’m a ‘feature runner’ type guy by mentality,” Tomlin confessed. “I think that if you have a featured runner, it gives them an opportunity to drop a stake in the ground and allows others to rally around him. It gives you a set of core run plays that he specializes in and you find a rhythm in that way.”

While many Steelers fans have been calling for them to spread their carries around in order to possibly preserve the health of running back James Conner, Tomlin gave no indication he was interested in lightening the workload when Conner is available. But with 20 out of 32 NFL franchises having their leading rusher in 2019 miss at least one game throughout the season, not having a featured back available at some point seems to be inevitable in today’s NFL. Tomlin acknowledged this notion and discussed the idea of having other rushers ready and available.

“But there’s no question in today’s game that a feature runner needs to be supplemented,” Tomlin added. “Supplemented by guys who are capable of doing similar things in case he misses time, but also supplemented by guys who are capable of doing different things to maybe challenge the defense in different ways. I think that’s just the makeup of our group right now.”

Coach Tomlin went on to particularly mention James Conner first out of the running back room. Acknowledging health is always a factor, Tomlin also mentioned the attributes Benny Snell Jr. brings to the team and his similarities to Conner.

“James is a feature runner and a proven guy when healthy,” Tomlin stated confidently. “We’re excited about him getting back to health and displaying that in 2020. Benny Snell is a guy who plays with a physical style in a similar manner as James and might be capable of being a James-type guy if James is unavailable.”

Getting back to the question at hand, Tomlin went on to discuss the addition of Anthony McFarland Jr.

“As you mentioned,” Tomlin said in reference to the specific question which was asked, “we’re excited about McFarland who brings a different component. He’s got catch quickness, is quick to speed, and is capable of producing big plays in open spaces. We like the collection of guys we have in the group.”

Whether intentional or not, Tomlin did not address any other half back on the roster. With the running back room being quite crowded, it is still unclear both how many and which particular running backs will make the 53-man roster.

One other player who is certain to make the team is newly acquired fullback Derek Watt.

“I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the addition of Derek Watt at the fullback position,” Tomlin continued. “We’re excited about him. We’re excited about what the group is going to do largely. But usually when it’s doing well, it’s because you have a lead dog out front and that guy is the featured runner.”

While it seems the Steelers have all the pieces in place to use an RBC approach to their offense, Coach Tomlin is giving no indication the Steelers plan to spread out the workload. Yes, Tomlin could simply not be wanting to tip his hand as to what he plans to do this season. But if past seasons are any indication, expect the Steelers to give the majority of carries to whoever is their featured running back each week based on health and availability.