Options abound on the ground

When assessing what he has to work with this season, Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner sees a group that's relatively short on experience but long on versatility.

A running backs room he can put to good use.

"I feel like there's a lot of options," Faulkner maintained. "You have experience, for one, not only at playing running back but also on special teams, guys who have been productive. You have a Pro Bowl-type running back as a starter (James Conner) that when healthy he's as good as any in the league. And you have a bunch of guys who's skill sets fit what we look for, whether that be Jaylen Samuels and his versatility. Whether that's Anthony McFarland and his change of direction and burst and speed, along with Kerrith Whyte being that similar type of back. Trey Edmunds and Wendell Smallwood, guys who have a resume of, again, not only playing running back but playing special teams. You got Derek Watt, a veteran-type guy, at fullback. Obviously, Benny Snell came in his first year, did some good things for us, has only gotten better.

"I just look around the room and I see a lot of talented guys that can help us. These practices that we're going through now help us find out what they do best to put them in position for us to win some games and go from there."

The Steelers don't have a running back that's produced a 1,000-yard season, or one that's a veteran of five NFL seasons.

But the skill sets Faulkner referenced have shown up often enough, either for the Steelers or elsewhere, to intrigue.

What the running backs can establish beyond what they've already displayed will go a long way toward establishing roles and a rotation.

"I know what a lot of the guys can do," Faulkner continued. "I also want to give them the opportunity to show me what they've improved on, so as we get going down the road here we'll start to see what some of those things are, and then you can start to look at a division of labor, who does what well.

"That's going to be the outline theme of the 2020 season in the NFL in my opinion, people who you can depend on, who can go out and execute with missing 1,000 reps from what would have been the spring and the offseason, the guys that you can depend on and know what they do. We'll try to put a thumb on that pretty quickly, what their skill set is, and then let it shake from there."

However it shakes out, the running backs will be challenged to improve a running game that didn't measure up a season ago for a variety of reasons.

"(Quarterback) Ben (Roethlisberger's) presence opens up the running game," Faulkner maintained. "I also think the run game can help Ben with some things. Obviously, we put an emphasis on improving that way.

"Yes, health is one concern, but we can all take our piece of the puzzle of how we can improve, what things we need to improve, whatever detail that is, whether it's running a play differently, identifying it differently, what have you. We've gone through that with a fine-tooth comb, even virtually, in the offseason.

"I feel confident that whoever's toting the rock can be productive."

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