The Pittsburgh Steelers’ running game struggled to get anything going in 2019. After QB Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season in week two, Steeler running backs continually faced stacked boxes behind poor performances by backups Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. The return of a healthy Big Ben should spread out defenses and create more opportunities on the ground. Here’s a look at how the backfield stacks up as we approach training camp in 2020:
James Conner is once again expected to anchor the Steelers‘ rushing attack. Mike Tomlin has always been reluctant to split time between his running backs, preferring to employ more of a workhorse approach. So the 4th year back from the University of Pittsburgh should see the lion’s share of the work out of the backfield. Despite missing only three games, Conner spent most of last season banged up and his numbers paled in comparison to his breakout campaign in 2018, when he amassed 973 yards on 215 carries with 12 TDs while adding 473 yards through the air on 55 catches.
Benny Snell enters the season as the clear cut backup and stands to inherit a sizable workload should anything happen to Conner, who has earned the stigma of being injury-prone during his brief career. Snell showed a great deal of promise as a rookie, albeit in a limited role, putting up 426 yards on 108 carries. Entering his sophomore season, Snell is expected to take a leap forward and might even challenge Conner for the duties of lead back in Pittsburgh.
Rookie Anthony McFarland should start the year on special teams but has the speed and explosiveness to add another dimension to Randy Fichtner’s offense. Though he needs to improve in pass blocking and lacks experience as a receiver, these are things he can work on through practice. McFarland possesses game-changing speed and is likely to see a good deal of action as the Steelers hope to reestablish the running game
Fullback Derek Watt, brother of Pro Bowl linebacker T.J. Watt, was signed in the off season. One of the best in the NFL at his position, Watt is also a key contributor on special teams, finishing the season tied for the league lead in tackles.
Of the other running backs that are currently fighting for a roster slot, Jaylen Samuels seems the most likely to land a spot on the depth chart. While he struggled to get anything going between the hash marks, Samuels has proven to be a decent pass catcher. Last season, he racked up 47 receptions for 305 yards and 1 TD. He will need to show improvement in both efficiency and pass protection if he hopes to be anything more than an occasional change of pace back.
Kerrith Whyte was signed by the Steelers in the middle of last season, amid a flurry of injuries which depleted the backfield. He has a similar build to McFarland and with the latter coming at the cost of 4th round draft pick, it is hard to envision Whyte landing a spot on the roster.
Trey Edmunds, brother of safety Terrell Edmunds, is a special teams player who saw a very limited amount of touches last season. The only real path to making the team for Edmunds is through special teams, where he performed pretty well in 2019.
In all, the Steelers should see a vast improvement in their running game. The offensive line ranked 30th in run blocking last season, down from 15th overall in 2018. Much of this can be attributed to the lack of a passing attack in 2019. Roethlisberger’s return should force opposing defenses to play honest and the addition of Watt at fullback should help to create holes and open up lanes for James Conner and company to establish a threat on the ground.