The Pittsburgh Steelers have some glaring holes. There is no joking around about it, and it’s going to take more than one offseason to fix these issues. Two of the most obvious issues the Steelers have is with their aging offensive line and their below average play in the back field. Recently I've noticed a lot of Steelers fans pining for the team to draft a top running back, like Alabama’s Najee Harris or Clemson’s Travis Etienne.
But this thinking is flawed on the fundamental level. Let me explain.
A good running back alone doesn't equate to a good running game. You could have the most elusive, fastest, and strongest runner in the game, but if the offensive line isn't providing any sort of push it will be all for naught. A running game gets stopped in its tracks the second a single offensive lineman get pushed into his own backfield, and that was a problem the Steelers had with a number of its blockers in 2020.
Running lanes are created in a couple of ways, depending on what type of run is called. But in all of these schemes it still falls on the lineman to create some sort of positive displacement against the man in his zone, or the man he is assigned. No running back is so elusive that they can consistently gain yardage when his lineman are being driven into the offensive backfield. They just can't.
To take this one step further, I would go as far as saying Derrick Henry probably wouldn’t have rushed for 1,000 yards behind the Steelers’ offensive line and current running scheme. Derrick Henry had the eighth greatest rushing total in NFL history this past season with 2,027 yards. He ran behind a really good offensive line and the perfect scheme for him to be successful. His success would not be linear in Pittsburgh. If you want some proof about the Steelers run game failures. Look no further than Pro Football Focus, who graded the Steelers as the 31st ranked run blocking team in the league.
Running back is also the least durable position in football. Look at Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Todd Gurley, Le’veon Bell, etc. etc. At best, you typically only get five good seasons out of them before their bodies can no longer handle the grueling nature of the position. Teams take a big risk when they give a back a second contract. Recent history shows those deals almost immediately blow up in a team’s face. Look at Gurley and Bell as prime examples.
There are also more benefits of drafting offensive lineman than just opening holes for running backs. Most obviously, they protect the quarterback. And for a team that throws the ball 45 times per game, we know Ben Roethlisberger needs the protection. Take the Cincinnati Bengals for example. They drafted their future franchise quarterback, Joe Burrow, first overall a year ago. But they opted not to improve one of the worst offensive lines in the league. Burrow, non-coincidentally tore nearly every ligament in his knee when one of his offensive lineman broke a cardinal rule of the position by throwing a defender toward his quarterback’s knees. Joe Burrow is lucky to already be walking, but he may never be the same player.
The benefits in drafting offensive linemen, early and often, far out weigh the benefits of drafting a running back in the first round. I personally guarantee you that if the Steelers take two offensive lineman within their first three picks, and then draft a running back in the fourth round, that running back would have a more successful career than if they draft a runner in the first round and try to fix the line after.
Teams can win the Super Bowl with undrafted running backs. A team will never win a Super Bowl with an offensive line built with undrafted/late round players. I know it can be frustrating to draft a guy that can't physically appear on the stat sheet, but an offense’s success is built upon the back of its line. It is time for the Steelers to build a great line once again.
But what do you think? Do you still think the Steelers should draft a running back in the first round? Explain you reasoning down in the comments below.