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Steelers running back unit ranked higher than expected by Pro Football Focus

Despite losing their leading rusher from 2020, the Steelers spending a first-round pick the position has increased their expected production.

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Pittsburgh Steelers v New York Giants Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Now that Pro Football Focus has finished their top players at each position lists for the 2021 offseason, the shift has come to position unit rankings. Rather than looking at individual players, they are looking at the group of players making up the position and how they compare to the rest of the NFL.

Of course, here comes my standard PFF disclaimer just make sure we all realize these particular rankings are not necessarily something to bet one’s life savings on:

It seems like I can’t write an article about PFF without giving the typical disclaimer of how their projections can be highly questionable. Even their grading of players after the fact can be picked apart, so expecting them to do well in the prediction business is not something which I’m ready to bet the farm on based on their conclusions.

The first position unit listed by Pro Football Focus is running back. According to PFF, the Pittsburgh Steelers come in at number 24.

Despite losing their leading rusher from 2020 and coming in dead last in rushing yards, the Steelers are not at the bottom of the list. Why the Steelers ended up in the 24th spot is described below according to PFF:


The Steelers’ backfield will ride on the success of first-round selection Najee Harris. Before his arrival, it was shaping up to be in the competition for the worst running back group in the NFL, with Benny Snell Jr. as the lead back (57.0 overall grade in 2020) and players such as Anthony McFarland Jr. and Kalen Ballage rounding out the group.

Harris’ well-rounded game clearly gives them a better option for the upcoming season. He has unique elusiveness in the open field for someone his size and is a natural receiver out of the backfield. There’s a reason he earned three consecutive PFF grades of 88.0 or higher at Alabama from 2018 to 2020.

It’s just difficult to put the unit as a whole very high, with limited quality depth behind a rookie lead back.

Honestly, Steelers fan should be pretty satisfied with this ranking. With the unit not showing much in 2020, it does seem the Steelers have all the eggs in the Najee Harris basket. The fact PFF has the highest drafted running back from the 2021 NFL draft moving his team up the board eight spots seems to be fairly reasonable. The biggest question is how quickly the rookie can get accustomed to the NFL and make a difference.

When looking at other rankings across the NFL, the Steelers are actually two spots above the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Additionally, the Steelers are four spots above the Arizona Cardinals who signed former Steelers running back James Conner this offseason to go along with Chase Edmonds.

When looking at the rest of the AFC North, the Steelers are unsurprisingly at the bottom of the division. The Cleveland Browns had two players on PFF’s list of the top 32 running backs, so it is no surprise they grab the top spot in the NFL. Despite leading the NFL in rushing in 2020, the Baltimore Ravens come in at number 13 on the list. Remember, this is a team’s running back unit and not their rushing attack as quarterback Lamar Jackson adds a lot to the Ravens’ run offense. As for the Cincinnati Bengals, they finished not far ahead of the Steelers in the 20th position.

If the Steelers were to improve their running attack for 2021 even to a point where they were just average, many Steelers fans would likely be more than satisfied. Adding a first-round draft pick to the position for the first time in 13 years will hopefully carry the running backs to a point where the Steelers could at least offer some kind of running threat in 2021.