On the most recent episode of the Steelers Stat Geek podcast, I was asked a question about the Steelers production from the RB2 position and if the Steelers should be in the market for an upgrade. Whether or not the Steelers are looking to get more production from their current running backs, or feel the need to add someone else, is an issue open for debate. But to help make a better informed decision, I laid it out by the numbers looking at the 2021 NFL season.
Rather than look at the top ranked rushing offenses in 2021, I specifically chose to look at teams which had a player rush for more than 1,000 yards. By using that amount as a standard, it was easier to see which teams utilized a primary running back approach rather than a running back by committee philosophy. Sometimes the committee approach is out of necessity rather than desire due to injuries throughout the season at the position. It should be noted that six of the top eight rushing offenses did not have a 1,000 yard rusher in 2021. For this reason, focusing on those teams and their primary running backs made the most sense.
For this exercise, I listed the rushers who went over 1,000 yards, the number of games they played, their rushing attempts, yards gained, and average yards per carry. I also included the same information for the second leading rusher (at running back) on the team. The breakdown is as follows:
Jonathan Taylor: 17 games, 1,811 yards on 332 attempts, 5.45 Y/C
Nyheim Hines: 17 games, 276 yards on 56 attempts, 4.93 Y/C
Nick Chubb: 14 games, 1,259 yards on 228 attempts, 5.52 Y/C
D’Ernest Johsnon: 17 games, 534 yards on 100 attempts, 5.34 Y/C
Joe Mixon: 16 games, 1,205 yards on 292 attempts, 4.13 Y/C
Samaje Perine: 16 games, 246 yards on 55 attempts, 4.47 Y/C
Najee Harris: 17 games, 1,200 yards on 307 attempts, 3.91 Y/C
Benny Snell Jr.: 17 games, 98 yards on 36 attempts, 2.72 Y/C
Dalvin Cook: 13 games, 1,159 yards on 249 attempts, 4.65 Y/C
Alexander Mattison: 16 games, 491 yards on 134 attempts, 3.66 Y/C
Washington Football Team:
Antonio Gibson: 16 games, 1,037 yards on 258 attempts, 4.02 Y/C
Jaret Patterson: 17 games, 266 yards on 68 attempts, 3.91 Y/C
Ezekiel Elliott: 17 games, 1,002 yards on 237 attempts, 4.23 Y/C
Tony Pollard: 15 games, 719 yards on 130 attempts, 5.53 Y/C
There are several things of note from the above situations. First, the second-leading rusher for the Washington Football Team was actually quarterback Taylor Heinicke. Since this is looking at the RB2 position, he was left out of the equation.
Additionally, it is interesting that the top four rushers in the NFL all came from the AFC, and three of the top four were specifically from the AFC North. Despite being third in the NFL in rushing, the Baltimore Ravens were the only AFC North team that did not have a 1,000 yard rusher in 2021, partially due to injuries.
Looking at the above data, it’s obvious to see the Pittsburgh Steelers used a specific player at RB2 the least of any of the teams outlined. Obviously Benny Snell had the least number of yards, but I was also followed by having the least amount of carries.
What stands out the most I believe comes from the yards per carry statistic. While looking at how many yards a running back gains per rushing attempt is telling, it also has to take into account scheme and blocking. So comparing players on different teams is difficult, but comparing players on the same team running in similar situations is a different story.
When it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the biggest thing that stands out is they had the biggest reduction in yards per carry going from the top running back to the second running back of any team that had a 1,000 yard rusher. So even if the Steelers did not utilize their other running backs much, when they did they had a significant drop in production.
Whether it’s with their current players under contract for 2022 or addressing the position either free agency or the draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers need more from the other running backs this coming season. With Najee Harris caring so much of the workload, the Steelers need to not only be able to give him a break in-game, they will need someone else ready to produce when the inevitable missed game finally comes around.
To check out the breakdown on the subject as well as looking at the Steelers past offensive line coaches, check out the latest episode of the Steelers Stat Geek podcast: