Back in January, Steelers’ Team President Art Rooney II mentioned in an interview that he wanted Pittsburgh to “…be a team that can be more consistent running the football.”
That quote was blown out of proportion in a big way, convincing many people (including myself) the Steelers would go with an offensive lineman or a running back with their first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to appease Mr. Rooney.
One Chase Claypool later, and I realized we were wrong. The Steelers passed on some talented lineman and running backs at No. 49 to grab a wide receiver, seemingly defying what the Team President had mandated.
Despite not addressing lineman or running back until the fourth round, the Steelers’ 2020 run game can still be much improved from what we experienced a year ago.
First of all, having Ben Roethlisberger back will empty the box of extra defenders this year. When James Washington gets behind the defense, the ball will finally be delivered to him on time, and defensive coordinators know that, too. The Steelers’ aerial attack might actually frighten some defenses in 2020, which will help open up the run game.
This isn’t Duck Hodges anymore.
Speaking of the passing game, the aforementioned addition of Chase Claypool will help the run game, as well. While Claypool’s presence obviously makes the Steelers’ wide receiver core more dangerous than it was before, he also loves to block - and is pretty good at pancaking defensive backs.
Want to know how good runs turn into great runs? The wide receivers block into the secondary, allowing the running back to get past the last line of defense. Claypool isn’t the only great blocking wideout on the Steelers, either. James Washington and Juju Smith-Schuster have each showed off their prowess in Hines Ward’s specialty, as well.
After Big Ben clears out the box, and Claypool and co. clear out the secondary, the Steelers drafted the perfect player to take the play into the end zone: speedy running back Anthony McFarland. Even though McFarland isn't the J.K. Dobbins, or Cam Akers, that many fans wanted, he provides the perfect compliment to the Steelers’ power-oriented running back room. McFarland has 4.4 speed, and slashed through a highly-regarded Ohio State team in 2018 with 298 rushing yards, including multiple explosive runs. Much like Chase Claypool, McFarland’s physical abilities alone add a new dimension to Pittsburgh’s offense and running game.
Sticking with the draft, the Steelers added Louisiana guard Kevin Dotson with their second of two fourth rounders. Dotson is a road grader on the offensive line, who might need to fine tune his pass protection in the pro’s, but will be clearing huge openings in the opposing defense for years to come in Pittsburgh. He’ll definitely help the run game at some point, even though it might not be right away.
Dotson was PFF’s highest ranked run-blocking guard last year, as well as an AP All American.
He also likes to pull trucks around in his free time.
Stefen Wisniewski was added before the draft as a possible stopgap at guard if the rookie is unable to start. His specialty is pass-blocking, but is more than capable of starting. Don’t be surprised if he’s a minor upgrade over 2019’s Ramon Foster.
If the team isn’t confident in Dotson or Wisneiwski starting, there is also the possibility that Matt Feiler starts at guard this year. Feiler played right tackle quite well last year, but is an excellent guard as well. He would most likely be the best option for jump-starting the run game in 2020.
Earlier in the offseason, the Steelers signed fullback Derek Watt, who happens to be Steelers’ star T.J. Watt’s brother and an excellent special teamer. He also plays his listed position quite well.
BTSC writer K.T. Smith wrote an article on how James Conner will benefit from quality fullback play, and that can't be stressed enough. Even though some stats might not perfectly reflect that logic, there’s no doubt that Conner prefers running behind a lead blocker.
Another BTSC writer, Geoffrey Benedict, did a great breakdown on how Watt will help the Steelers’ running game here. Whatever your thoughts are on fullback usage, it can’t be denied that Watt will help as a blocker, and even be occasionally used as a runner. He also looks to be more available health-wise than Roosevelt Nix was last year.
Maybe James Conner can learn a thing or two.
And, in the end, that might be the biggest factor in how the Steelers’ run game plays out in 2020. The pieces are there, but if they can’t stay healthy, it doesn't mean much.
Even though the Steeler fanbase can get overly frustrated with Conner’s injuries - it’s not like he’s trying to be that way - the question marks surrounding his health put the Steelers’ 2020 run game’s success in doubt. Still, I firmly believe that if Pittsburgh’s front office knew that Conner’s injuries would plague the rest of his career, they would of brought in another starting-caliber runner this offseason.
Or maybe the team likes Benny Snell a lot more than we thought.
I found an interesting stat on Pro Football Reference when looking at the Steelers running backs’ rushing numbers: Trey Edmunds, who definitely isn’t a speedster, and probably won’t even make the final roster this year, had the longest rush of any Steelers player in 2019. His 45-yard scamper was 20 more than the nearest competition. Edmunds didn’t do much else that season, but he still managed to provide the biggest running play of the entire year.
That goes to show that it doesn't take a All-Pro running back to have a good rushing attack. Trey Edmunds followed a pulling David DeCatstro and Maurkice Pouncey through a gaping hole in the defense and ran hard. It isn't that complicated. Good blocking covers up a multitude of sins, including major deficiencies in talent.
So, a James Conner injury might not be the end of the world for the Steelers’ rushing attack.
Even though Pittsburgh didn’t add any big-name, high pedigree players in an obvious attempt to fix the run game this offseason, there was still a clear plan in place.
Mr. Rooney and the rest of Steelers Nation will be treated with a much improved run game in 2020.