The Steelers resigned Juju Smith-Schuster on Friday, allowing them to retain their receiving corps from last season. While the group struggled down the stretch with drops and production, the foursome of Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington is one of the deeper units in the league. Their return, and the return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, bodes well for the passing game in 2021.
The weak link of the Pittsburgh offense, however, is not the passing game. It’s the rushing attack, which ranked last in the league in total yards in 2020 and was near the bottom in yards per attempt and rushing efficiency. The organization has talked a great deal about rebuilding the run game this off-season. Some of their recent moves indicate that rebuild is underway.
Up front, they’ve re-signed tackle Zach Banner, re-acquired guard/center B.J. Finney and signed free agent swing lineman Joe Haeg. Adding Banner and second-year guard Kevin Dotson to the starting lineup will be an upgrade from a run-blocking standpoint over former starters Matt Feiler and Alejandro Villanueva. And while Finney and Haeg are not spectacular, both are capable run-blockers who should provide value as depth pieces and fill-in starters. The Steelers may still look for a veteran center in free agency and are certain to address the line in the draft.
Elevating Matt Canada to the coordinator position is another step in the re-build. Canada is expected to produce a more effective rushing attack than did his predecessor, Randy Fichtner, whose emphasis on throwing the ball and on positional blocking weakened the run game. Canada’s physical gap scheme, which he pairs with the outside zone play, will require a more aggressive mind-set from the Steelers’ linemen.
Missing from this re-build is one key component, however: a dynamic running back. The Steelers, as currently constructed, lack such a player. James Conner is not likely to be resigned. Benny Snell Jr. is a nice power runner but is not versatile enough to be the every-down back in Canada’s system. Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland are role players. The Steelers have not pursued a free agent running back and, with limited remaining options, are unlikely to do so. That leaves the draft, where they will almost certainly look to acquire one.
Recent drafts have shown that round two is the sweet spot for finding optimum value at the running back position. In the past few seasons, Michael Pittman, D’Andre Swift, Jonathan Taylor, Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook and Derrick Henry have all gone in the second round. If that trend holds, the Steelers could perhaps find a top back when they draft at 2:55. A prime target would be North Carolina’s Javonte Williams, who may be available in that spot or, more likely, would require a trade up in the round to select. With needs on the offensive line, at linebacker and at cornerback, grabbing Williams would allow them to pick the best player available at any of those other positions in round one.
There’s one problem with that philosophy. The best options at those positions could either be unavailable or a reach at 1:24. Players like Christian Darrisaw (OT, Virginia Tech) and Zaven Collins (LB, Tulsa) are likely to be gone while Jalen Mayfield (OT, Michigan), Teven Jenkins (OT, Oklahoma State), Greg Newsome (CB, Northwestern) and Tyson Campbell (CB, Georgia) might be more appropriate options if the Steelers traded back.
Which brings us to the running backs. The two players with first-round grades at the position are Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne. Both are experienced players from elite programs who fit wonderfully in Canada’s scheme. One, or perhaps both, are likely to be available at 1:24. If that’s the case, I believe the Steelers will address their running back need immediately rather than waiting to find one later on.
If this logic is correct, and the choice is indeed between Harris and Etienne, whom should the Steelers select? Let’s take a closer look.
Harris is the most complete running back in college football. At 6’2-230, he is a physical between-the-tackles runner. But his speed (4.5 in the forty) makes him a solid outside runner too. Harris caught 70 passes his final two years at Alabama as well, making him a true triple threat. No back in the draft has his blend of power, speed and ability.
The first thing that jumps out about Harris is his vision. Big backs often want to get downhill as fast as possible and power their way through a defense. But Harris is a patient runner. He’s not as deliberate as Le’Veon Bell but he possesses a similar willingness to wait for a hole to open and then burst through it.
Watch this touchdown run from the SEC championship game in December. As the play develops, it looks to be going nowhere. The Florida defense does a nice job plugging gaps and stringing Harris to the sideline. Then, in an instant, Harris finds a tiny seam and is through it to the end zone:
Here’s another. This run doesn’t look like anything special but it’s really good. Again, there doesn’t appear to be anywhere to go as Harris takes the handoff. The Notre Dame defensive front slants to the play-side, creating penetration and movement. A less patient back would have probably buried himself. But Harris stutters, jump-cuts inside then deftly makes a defender miss in the hole. The result is a seven-yard gain on a play that initially looked dead:
Harris’s game isn’t always this subtle. He does spectacular things as well. Want to see a 230 pound back hurdle a defender with ease? Here you go:
Harris also displays very good hands as a receiver. I was especially impressed with this catch, which is tougher than it appears. Harris (in motion) does a great job using his hands to catch a ball thrown away from his body. It’s hard to explain how tricky it is to be moving laterally, looking over one’s inside shoulder and to catch a ball that’s not placed well. Harris makes it look easy:
70 receptions and nearly 2,700 yards rushing over his final two years against some of the nation’s best competition is no fluke. Harris was simply tremendous at Alabama. Of course, the Bama offense, with players like Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith on the perimeter and one of the nation’s best offensive lines up front, made life a lot easier for him. Recent Alabama backs like Trent Richardson, T.J. Yeldon and Bo Scarborough struggled to duplicate their college stardom in the NFL. Whether Harris was a product of the program or a legitimate franchise back is a question the Steelers will have to consider.
The Steelers sent their top brass to Clemson’s Pro Day last week, where Etienne wowed the crowd with a 4.40 forty time. Pittsburgh hasn’t had a back with that kind of home-run speed in a long time. Etienne isn’t just a speed guy, however. He’s a complete running back who can run inside, outside, catch the ball and be used in a variety of roles. He would be an ideal weapon for Canada’s system.
Here’s Etienne running mid-zone, which resembles Canada’s signature outside zone play but hits a gap tighter. Etienne has excellent vision and, once he sees a cut, bursts through it with great acceleration. He is known as a speed back but he’s not small (5’10-210) and he finishes his runs physically. I love his quick recognition of the cut here but especially how, after hitting the seam, he lowers his shoulder at the point of contact and makes an extra couple of yards:
Etienne was such an effective inside runner, in fact, that Clemson often used him in short yardage situations. Below, on a 3rd and 1 play, they run a simple inside zone and let Etienne attack the line with speed and power. He gets square, makes one cut and goes, running through an arm tackle at the line of scrimmage and another at the second level for a nice gain:
The fact that Etienne can run with power means Canada would not have to pigeonhole his role the way the Steelers have done in the past with so-called speed backs like Chris Rainey, Dri Archer or, for those who remember, Erric Pegram. Etienne is bigger and far more physical than those runners and can be used in any situation. The Steelers may not see him as a guy who can handle 25 carries a game, and they would likely prefer Benny Snell as a pure short-yardage back. But Etienne, when called upon, can occupy that role.
Let’s not bury the lede here, though. The thing that separates Etienne from most of the backs in this draft is his ability to operate in space. Watch him quickly diagnose the pursuit of the defense on this draw play and burst to the edge (with a nice assist from quarterback Trevor Lawrence). Etienne is simply moving at a different speed than anyone else on the field. And, once again, he finishes the run by blowing through contact and falling forward:
Here’s another. Etienne’s ability as a receiver (he caught 102 passes at Clemson) allows an offense to get him the ball in space, where he can score from anywhere on the field. Take this screen pass against Ohio State from the 2019 playoff semi-final. It’s a seemingly harmless play at first, with Etienne uncertain where to set the screen. He catches the ball seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, far too deep under normal circumstances. But, once he does, his athleticism takes over. He avoids an initial tackler, accelerates past a second and then, with the help of some nifty downfield blocking, splits the remaining defenders. Etienne’s blend of power and speed puts pressure on defenses to pursue and tackle well. Those who don’t get exploited:
With all of the shifts, motions and formations Canada loves to employ, there’s no question he will be able to create mismatches with Etienne on the perimeter. And, with his ability to run inside, Canada can use the entire playbook with Etienne on the field, making it harder for defenses to game-plan.
While Harris is the better pure running back and the similarities between him and Bell are interesting, Etienne reminds me a great deal of Alvin Kamara. They are similar in stature, ability and style. Both Bell (in his prime) and Kamara would fit wonderfully in Canada’s offense. Kamara is the more dynamic player, though, as is Etienne. This Steelers offense needs a home-run hitting playmaker who can threaten defenses any time he touches the ball. Etienne is that player, and therefore my preference.
That said, the Steelers are by no means a lock to select either back. They’ve chosen a defensive player in the first round seven consecutive times. With big holes at corner and inside backer, an eighth straight pick is not out of the question.
But, in bringing back Roethlisberger, resigning Smith-Schuster and Banner and acquiring Finney and Haeg, this off-season has been about the offense. I think the Steelers will continue that trend in round one. The best offensive tackles will probably be off the board when they select, which should reduce their thought process to one simple question: Harris or Etienne? Either way, they will be much-improved in the run game.