Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 17.
RUNNING BACKS (6)
James Conner, Trey Edmunds, Anthony McFarland, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell, Derek Watt
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1 unrestricted – James Conner)
Take a look at the best photos taken of the Steelers running backs during the 2020 season
A LAST LOOK AT 2020
When it comes to the crime that was the Steelers running attack in 2020, the offensive line and the running backs were analogous to Bonnie and Clyde, in that one was as guilty as the other. There were no innocent bystanders. Running the football has been a part of the Steelers identity throughout most of the 88 seasons the franchise has been a part of the National Football League, but last season the performance in that aspect was epically bad.
One of the worst teams in franchise history was the 1969 edition – the first of the Chuck Noll era – that opened with a three-point victory over Detroit and then proceeded to lose 13 in a row to finish 1-13. Even those Steelers could run the football better than the 2020 team.
In 1969, the Steelers averaged 3.9 yards per carry on the season, 110.1 yards per game, and .57 touchdowns per game. In 2020, the Steelers averaged 3.6 yards per carry, 84.4 yards per game, and .75 touchdowns per game.
Adding insult to the indignity, the 1969 Steelers were quarterbacked by Dick Shiner and rookie Terry Hanratty, who combined to complete 45 percent of their passes, with 17 touchdowns, 29 interceptions, and a combined rating of 49.4. To call those numbers high school-esque is to insult scholastic quarterbacking. The 2020 Steelers completed 65.2 percent of their passes,, with 35 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, and a combined rating of 93.5.
In other words, even though the 1969 Steelers had no legitimate threat of a passing attack to divert the attention of opposing defenses, that offense STILL was able to run the football more effectively over the course of an entire NFL regular season than the 2020 group.
There is a way to look at the season statistics for some of the individual backs and find some things to like. James Conner finishing with 721 yards on 169 carries (4.3 average) and six touchdowns is one example, but he had three 100-yard games and four of his six touchdowns over the first five weeks of the season, and then the production fell off a cliff.
Benny Snell opened the season with 113 yards on 19 carries (5.95 average) against the New York Giants, and then in Week 15 he had 84 yards on 18 carries (4.7 average) and a touchdown against the Bengals. But in between, there was nothing close to that level of production.
Rookie Anthony McFarland came to the Steelers with a glowing college resume that included a 6.7 yards per carry average, plus six 100-yard games during his two-season college career at Maryland, and as a freshman he rushed for 210 yards vs. Indiana and 298 vs. Ohio State in back-to-back weeks. But in the NFL, his highlight was a 42-yard-on-six-carry afternoon vs. Houston, and then over the rest of the season he never even had as many as 20 rushing yards in any game.
One calendar year ago, the Steelers had the belief that Conner since once showed himself to be an NFL feature back and could do so again, and so they decided it would be good enough to surround him with some complementary pieces. Today, there should be little doubt that the Steelers do not have a guy who qualifies as a feature back, and in fact all they have on their depth chart are complementary pieces.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
In 2020, the average rushing yards per team in the NFL for the whole season was 1,902; per game it was 118.9; per carry it was 4.4; and for touchdowns it was 16.6. Those totals represented the NFL average in those categories. The fact the Steelers' totals came in at 1,351 for the season; 84.4 per game; 3.6 per carry; and 12 touchdowns shows definitively how much worse the Steelers were at running the football than even an average team in 2020.
Take a look at photographs of Steelers RB Anthony McFarland Jr. from the 2020 season
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2021
Conner will become an unrestricted free agent on March 17, and re-signing him would make no sense for the Steelers. Despite his Pro Bowl season of 2018, Conner has shown that he's not an NFL feature back, certainly not one who's capable of carrying a rushing attack on his shoulders. In retrospect, the worst thing that happened to the Steelers was his 2018 season, because it served as a false sense of security and led the Steelers to believe he was capable of a level of play that his complete body of work indicates he is not.
In Conner, Snell, and McFarland, the Steelers have three complementary pieces to a rushing attack but no one to carry the load. Finding one of those backs capable of carrying the load has to be a priority of this offseason, and when it comes to this position and that role in the NFL, the only place to find that kind of guy is in the draft.
Starting with Noll's first draft (1969), the Steelers have spent eight No. 1 or No. 2 picks on running backs, and they got their money's worth twice – Franco Harris was a No. 1 pick in 1972, and Le'Veon Bell was a No. 2 pick in 2013. None of the others: Warren Bankston, a No. 2 in 1969; Sidney Thornton, a No. 2 in 1977; Greg Hawthorne, a No. 1 in 1979; Walter Abercrombie, a No. 1 in 1982; Tim Worley, a No. 1 in 1989; and Rashard Mendenhall, a No. 1 in 2008, were all that special.
But history shouldn't deter the team from doing what's necessary to change the current course of its running game, because what they've been doing lately hasn't worked. And finishing last in the NFL in rushing is not only an embarrassment but also a considerable drag on any hope the team has to compete in a given season.
NEXT: Defensive Line