Labriola On

Labriola on how the Steelers can run the ball

Ready or not, here it comes:

• It started on Jan. 15 with this from Steelers President Art Rooney II: "I would like to see us be a team that can be more consistent running the football. I think that has to be a part of the game."

• Then there was this on April 20, 72 hours before the start of the NFL Draft, from Coach Mike Tomlin: "There's some top-quality backs in this draft who could help us, but there are also some other positional guys who could help us. We'll let the development do the work for us. If we get an opportunity to add a back who could bring some things to our current pool, we'll be excited about that. We have every intention of running the ball better in 2020 than we did in 2019, whether we add that back or not, and that's just being bluntly honest with you."

• And following the draft, there was a lot of this from fans: "So we selected another receiver for Ben Roethlisberger and allowed the Ravens to select running back J.K. Dobbins. I do not believe the current group of running backs can balance the offense effectively. Championship teams have a feature back, and I still believe Dobbins, or D'Andre Swift, or Jonathan Taylor could have been that for the Steelers. Our defense is physical but our offense continues to be less than the Steelers' traditional physical style. Le'Veon Bell ran over defenders much like Jerome Bettis did. James Connor runs tough but is injury-prone. Anyhow, we had a shot at a feature back a la Ezekiel Elliot, and we passed on him for a big wide receiver."

• Because the Steelers rushed for 1,447 yards during the 2019 regular season (90.4 per game to rank 29th in the league) and averaged 3.7 yards per attempt (to rank 30th in the league), and because Art Rooney II had said he wanted to see the team "be more consistent running the football," the assumption – as illustrated in the above paragraph – was that the team would use the draft to address all of that. And in the process, fix it.

• That in fact is precisely one of the things the Steelers did address in the draft, and what they did was designed to make them more effective running the football in 2020, and beyond.

• The Steelers are planning on having Ben Roethlisberger back as their starting quarterback for the upcoming season, and it only made sense for them to make personnel decisions based on that reality. The reports the Steelers have been getting on Roethlisberger's rehabilitation all along have been positive, and maybe most significant is that there have been no setbacks.

• With the start of training camps, the preseason, and maybe even the regular season uncertain as to the timing of each, even if Roethlisberger was behind in his rehab, which he is not, that might not be much more than a bump in the road. But when a rehabbing player suffers a setback, that could turn out to be a very bad thing, and because Roethlisberger has been making steady progress with no setbacks, it was the smart thing to do to proceed with the idea that he will be back and effective in 2020.

• At this point, I would like to remind everyone of the 2015 offseason, which was when Coach Mike Tomlin first introduced a drill to the daily on-field routine that has come to be known as 7-shots. As a refresher, 7-shots is a competitive drill that now opens every practice session, and it's 11-on-11 with the ball placed at the 2-yard line. The offense needs to get the ball into the end zone, and the defense needs to prevent that from happening. There are seven repetitions of this, Tomlin keeps score, and then proclaims the winner at the end.

• Well, when this started, the offense often would deploy the following personnel group: Five offensive linemen, Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton, and Le'Veon Bell. Roethlisberger would line up in the shotgun with Bell next to him, and the wide receivers and Miller would spread out on both sides of the formation.

• Most of the time, Roethlisberger would take the shotgun snap and get the ball out of his hand quickly to one of the receivers, because it was nearly impossible to cover Miller, Brown, Bryant, and Wheaton, especially when they were running combination routes or crossing routes. And you know what else was like taking candy from a baby? Handing the ball to Bell.

• The point being that with Roethlisberger at quarterback, the best way for the Steelers to juice their running game via the draft was to provide him with another weapon. And it didn't necessarily have to be a running back, because as General Manager Kevin Colbert said during the April 20 videoconference, "I know James (Conner) will enter the 2020 season healthy, but you know, can we complement him, we'll see. But I'm not going in thinking we don't have a starter-capable runner because I know James Conner is."

• Using the 49th overall pick on Chase Claypool adds a weapon to the offense for Roethlisberger, and because he is 6-foot-4, 238 pounds, has run a 4.39, and embraces the physical, nasty aspects of his job, he deserves to be viewed as someone who can be a reason why the Steelers are more effective running the football in 2020.

• Let's play around with some personnel groupings the Steelers possibly could deploy, and then honestly ask yourself whether the defense will have an easy time diagnosing what the offense will want to do and then be able to stop it. Here we go:

• Roethlisberger, Conner, Eric Ebron, Vance McDonald, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Diontae Johnson.

• Roethlisberger, Conner, Derek Watt, Ebron, Smith-Schuster, and Chase Claypool.

• Roethlisberger, Conner, Smith-Schuster, Johnson, James Washington, and Claypool.

• Roethlisberger, Benny Snell, McDonald, Smith-Schuster, Johnson, Washington.

• Roethlisberger, Watt, Jaylen Samuels or Anthony McFarland, Smith-Schuster, Johnson, Washington.

• Those are just a handful of the possible combinations, and there are a lot of either/or possibilities within those, but when you look all of them over, each of those personnel groupings could be on the field for a running play or a passing play.

• Additionally, most of those personnel groupings will force the defense to respond with a multi-defensive back alignment, which also helps the offense run the football because most of the opponents' big run-stuffers will be standing on the sideline.

• Using the 49th overall pick on a running back would have been redundant in terms of the Steelers' personnel, because there only can be one No. 1 running back on the field at a time. But adding another receiver opens up more possibilities because offenses regularly line up with three or four of those guys on the field at the same time, and because the receiver the Steelers added was a big, physical, fast man, his presence on the field won't dictate automatically whether the play will be a run or a pass.

• And the way the league is trending, picking running backs early in the draft is something rarely done anymore, and the ones picked early and the teams doing it aren't having a lot of success as a result of that decision. In the last 10 drafts (2011-20) combined, there have been 14 running backs selected in the first round, and a total of 27 running backs selected among the first 50 picks. Again, over the last 50 picks in the past 10 drafts – a total of 500 players – only 27 were running backs, which represents 5.4 percent of the players selected.

• In contrast, over the same 10-draft period (2011-20), there were 38 wide receivers picked in the first round, and a total of 62 wide receivers selected among the top 50 picks. That means of the top 500 players drafted over the previous 10 years, 5.4 percent were running backs and 12.4 percent were wide receivers.

• Not only is the trend against spending high draft picks on running backs, but the idea of a team needing a dynamic individual to provide the kind of running game that's necessary to win a championship just isn't true anymore. The 2019 Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs had Damien Williams and LeSean McCoy at running back, and neither of them rushed for even 500 yards on the season. The "feature back" for New England's three most recent championship teams were Sony Michel in 2018, LeGarrette Blount in 2016, and Shane Vereen in 2014. When Denver won the Super Bowl following the 2015 season, their feature back was Ronnie Hillman, and he was supported by C.J. Anderson.

• And while Michel rushed for 931 yards and scored six touchdowns in 2018, Conner rushed for 973 yards and scored 12 rushing touchdowns that same season. Additionally, Conner's 12 rushing touchdowns helped the Steelers finish with the most efficient red zone offense in the league that season, which is a much more accurate measure of a back's effectiveness than total number of yards gained.

• If the Steelers had used their 49th overall pick on a running back, then they don't have a chance to get Claypool, and getting a player with Claypool's skill-set helps Roethlisberger, which has to be the approach for a team that's paying market value for a franchise quarterback with multiple Super Bowl victories on his resume.

• Creating more options for the offense. Forcing the opponent to respect run and pass and spread itself out to defend the whole field, horizontally and vertically, and forcing the opponent to do that with more defensive backs and defensive linemen and linebackers.

• That's how the Steelers can be successful running the football. That's their path to a more consistent running game. It can work.

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