Steelers running game is still lacking one critical element

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) escapes a tale by Atlanta Falcons linebacker Rashaan Evans (54) during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) escapes a tale by Atlanta Falcons linebacker Rashaan Evans (54) during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports /
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The Pittsburgh Steelers have been better at running the football, but one of the most important elements is still missing from their rushing attack.

Since the bye week, fans have been ecstatic about Pittsburgh’s running game. This entire element of their offense was completely missing early in the season, but recently, this rushing attack has really come to life. Over the past four games since the break, the Steelers have been averaging an astonishing 161 yards per game on the ground.

Their 645 rushing yards Since Week 10 ranks 5th in the NFL, and it is very clear that Pittsburgh has taken a major step forward in this department. However, Steelers running backs still have an Achilles heel. There is one critical element missing from their game: speed.

On 330 team carries this season, the Steelers have had just 4 runs of 20 or more yards, according to ESPN stats. Of rushing attempts among running backs only, they have just 2 explosive runs on a whopping 238 carries.

This essentially means that when anybody is carrying the ball on the Steelers, they statistically have just a 1.2 percent chance of busting off their run for at least 20 yards. When a running back is carrying the ball, that percentage drops all the way down to just a 0.84 percent chance of an explosive run.

Why Steelers lack of speed at RB matters

So what’s the big deal? If the Pittsburgh Steelers are still 5th in rushing since the bye week, isn’t that good enough? Don’t let the raw numbers fool you; this team is still far from perfect on the ground.

There’s no doubt that Pittsburgh has made some major strides since the beginning of the season. However, I think this speaks much more toward continuity and execution from the offensive line than anything else. It’s reasonable to think this way because it hasn’t just been Najee Harris who has improved from an efficiency standpoint.

Statistically, it doesn’t matter who has been back there for Steelers — Benny Snell, Jaylen Warren, or Anthony McFarland — their efficiency is all about the same. Where their rushing offense becomes limited is due to a lack of explosive plays — plays that for most teams result in points.

Take the Dallas Cowboys this year, for example. Their explosive run rate is five times higher than Pittsburgh’s this year/ Why? It’s probably because they have speed at the running back position with Tony Pollard. One of the league’s best home-run threats has chipped in 5 carries of 30 or more yards this season. As a result, the Cowboys have a great explosive run rate and have chipped in 19 scores on the ground.

The Steelers, meanwhile, have just 5 rushing touchdowns from their running backs this year — most of which have to come near the goal line.

What’s most concerning is that Najee Harris — who has dominated the workload this year — has just 1 explosive run on 175 carries. This is an explosive run rate of a dismal 0.57 percent.

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Pittsburgh’s rushing attack has been working as the line has improved and opened up some lanes. Sadly, this is never going to help translate into points for the Steelers unless they can find a way to hit more explosive plays out of the backfield. Unfortunately, that may not happen until they get a faster running back who can carve into the workload in the running game.