Skip to main content

Insufficient, not incapable

The running game wasn't good enough in terms of personnel, scheme, commitment, execution or any other aspect in 2020, and the Steelers know it.

"When you're dead last in anything, it's all of the above," head coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged at the conclusion of what, from a running game standpoint, was a disappointing campaign. "We better assess it as such."

There's much to sort through as it relates to the ground game.

But that's not to suggest it was a total loss, No. 32-out-of-32-teams ranking and all.

Following is a look back at some of the running game's most memorable moments in the 2020 regular season:

Oct. 11: Wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud's 58-yard run against Philadelphia

A wide receiver sweep that almost made it to the house on first-and-10 from the Steelers' 37-yard line with the Steelers ahead, 17-14, early in the third quarter. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took the snap from under center and initially faked a handoff to running back James Conner before handing the ball to McCloud, who was motioning from left to right behind the formation. McCloud got a kick-out block from tight end Vance McDonald (on cornerback Darius Slay) and then followed a convoy that included center Maurkice Pouncey, offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor and tight end Eric Ebron up the seam. McCloud wasn't touched until he'd reached the Philadelphia 25 and eventually made it all the way to the Eagles' 5. The Steelers were off and running on the way to a 39-28 victory.

Sept. 20: Conner's 59-yard run against Denver

The Steelers were in run-out-the-clock mode against the Broncos, ahead by five and facing a second-and-5 from their 31 with 1:47 left in regulation. Conner embarked upon what turned out to be the long run of the season and all but settled the issue, pushing the ball to the Denver 10 and necessitating the use of the Broncos' second timeout. Two more Conner runs and a Roethlisberger kneel-down were all that was required to put the finishing touches on a 26-21 triumph.

Oct. 11: Wide receiver Chase Claypool's 2-yard touchdown run against Philadelphia

There were a lot of components to what turned out to be the first of two rushing touchdowns for Claypool in his rookie season. The ones in play on second-and-goal from the Philadelphia 2 in the first quarter of a scoreless game included Claypool motioning from right to left, taking a handoff and getting outside of defensive tackle Malik Jackson's push upfield from the right side of the defensive formation, Claypool cutting back behind perfect blocks from running back Trey Edmunds (on safety K'Von Wallace) and Ebron (on linebacker Nathan Gerry), and Claypool leaping into the end zone ahead of safety Rodney McCloud. This was another early-season example of the influence of then-quarterbacks coach and current offensive coordinator Matt Canada on the offense.

Oct. 18: Conner's 3-yard touchdown run against Cleveland

The manner in which Conner helped the Steelers to a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter of a game they'd go on to win 38-7 wasn't as significant as his crossing the goal line with the ball under his arm for a fourth consecutive game. The victory over the Browns also turned out to be Conner's third 100-yard game (101) and the Steelers' fourth from a running back through the season's first five games (Benny Snell went for 113 in the opener). The ground game was effective early, but the Steelers weren't able to maintain it. The ground game was insufficient in the long run, but not incapable.

Oct. 18: Eight successive runs for a touchdown against the Browns

A sequence that could and perhaps should be interpreted as one long, effective and oh-so-satisfying running play. The Steelers took over at the Cleveland 28 after stuffing running back Kareem Hunt for a loss of 1 on fourth-and-1 with 5:59 left in the third quarter and the Browns trailing, 24-7. What transpired was a drive in 5:03 for a 31-7 lead that covered 28 yards on eight straight running plays. The Steelers used Jerald Hawkins as an eligible tight end/third tackle. They used Conner. They used Snell. They even used Roethlisberger to convert a fourth-and-1 from the Cleveland 5, and Claypool to finish the job They kept the ball on the ground, they ate clock and they put the game away. Statement made, albeit one that too often didn't resonate.