Steelers must rethink RB position in order to compete

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 10: James Conner #30 of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up before the game against the Los Angeles Rams at Heinz Field on November 10, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 10: James Conner #30 of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up before the game against the Los Angeles Rams at Heinz Field on November 10, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) /

If the Steelers want to improve their rushing attack in 2020, they must rethink how they use their position and spread out their workload

Outside of QB, no position has been speculated more on than the RB position for the Steelers. After a disappointing and injury-riddled season for starter James Conner, many Steelers fans clamored for a new starter early in the 2020 draft. That said, the only significant addition was through a 4th round pick (Anthony McFarland), meaning the RB group should be mostly unchanged next year.

Considering the struggles of the position last year, some obvious changes need to be implemented to help this position succeed. With the Super Bowl window ever-shrinking, having a potent rushing attack is vital to a successful franchise. The common belief is that the issue is the talent at the position, but in reality, it is the usage at the position that is the issue.

Looking at least years usage, the Steelers had an RB carry the ball a total of 344 times, with the majority of those carries being split between James Conner (116 carries) and Benny Snell (108 carries). While that seems like an equal workload, the reality of the situation is where the problem with the Steelers running game lies.

Conner logged 97 of his 116 rushing attempts between the opening week and week seven before injuries took their toll on Conner. Conversely, during that same period, Snell only rushed 28 times. This goes back to the Steeler’s steady reliance on a bell-cow back, or an RB that that takes the majority of carries (think Derrick Henry or Saquon Barkley). This used to be a necessity when running was more important to an offense, but the need for a bell-cow has decreased over the years.

Look at last year; the second-place 49ers who had a rushing attack headed by three backs: Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert, and Matt Breida. All three had over a hundred carries and the combined stats for the three came out to 1939 rushing yards. Even their fourth-stringer, Jeff Wilson, was productive, logging over a hundred rushing yards and four TDs.

More to the point, look at the prolific offense last year that the Ravens had. Looking just at their RBs, their starter Mark Ingram logged 202 attempts for 1018 yards while their backup Gus Edwards rushed 113 times for 711 yards. This type of attack was ideal, since Ingram, being older and having more of an injury history, was still given ample amounts of carries to prove his worth but was adequately supplemented by the less injury-prone Edwards. The key is, Ingram never attempted over 20 rushes in a game, and never rushed over 15 times in all but two games.

Implementing a rushing attack similar to the ones listed could be the missing key for the Steelers. Injuries aside, Conner is the most talented option on the roster, as he can do everything from rushing, to catching, to pass blocking. After him, Snell is a slow builder that gets better as the game progressed. McFarland is a speedy change of pace option that should fit in well with power backs that the roster already has. The Steelers also have Jaylen Samuels and Kerrith Whyte on the roster, but if either of them makes the roster, they shouldn’t be expected to contribute heavily.

There isn’t much of a choice, as the Steelers must implement more of a committee backfield to restore the running game. This way, Conner’s talent can be best utilized as well as some of the other options taking the pressure off of him. This way, the maximum amount of talent is utilized.

Looking at how this would work, say the Steelers run 352 times next year (22 rushes a game) and expect a 4.5 yards per carry overall from their group (just under 1600 total rushing yards). Utilizing a simple 55/35/10 percent split would give Conner the lead back status with Snell receiving the brunt of the reserve work. As well, it gives a rookie like McFarland, and whoever is a part of the RB group 10 percent of the carries to spell the two starters.

Looking at Conner, his expected stat line in this scenario breaks down to around 194 carries for 873 yards. He would average between 12 to 13 carries a game (in an attempt to keep his usage down). Snell would supplement that with around 124 carries for 558 yards (about eight attempts per game). The last 35 carries and 158 yards would go to everyone else.

While these numbers are arbitrary, it is meant to see what a realistic division of labor would be. Conner would be in the best position to utilize his talent while also keeping his usage down to preserve him. Snell would see the majority of backup carries since he is better with the more snaps he gets. Finally, the rest of the RBs split whatever is left.

How this would look on game day is Conner seeing most of the early work (1st quarter) and is then split with Snell as the game goes on. Considering the power Snell has, he would make an ideal 4th quarter RB, one that can wear down the defense if the Steelers have the lead. This will allow Conner to rest and preserve himself while also getting him on the field.

This doesn’t consider pass snaps either, as Conner can do a lot of damage in the passing game. Still, with his average carries per game, even five catches in a game keep his total touches below 20. Again, Conner is immensely talented, he just can’t last with his extensive injury history.

Assuming this works, long term the Steelers should be set at the position. If Conner can make a setup like this work, he would be a candidate for an extension next offseason. If he can’t stay healthy or his stats continue to dip but Snell puts up good tape, then he becomes the lead back for next year. Even if the Steelers have to invest in an RB, they could do so expecting them to add to the group instead of hoping they can be a bell-cow.

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The problem at RB isn’t the talent at the position, it is the usage. If the Steelers can find a way to better utilize their talent, it should boost their running game and pay dividends down the road. The Steelers can’t continue to pound Conner, his body can’t take it and the running game can’t survive without him.