The end of the season was a disaster for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who started the 2020 campaign 11-0 but dropped all but one game in the final six to end the year 12-4. They ultimately won the AFC North, but they made a disastrous exit from the playoffs after dropping a 48-37 decision to Cleveland.
One of the biggest reasons for the Steelers’ late season letdown was their inability to run the football, something the franchise is usually known for.
James Conner was the team’s leading rusher, but despite his 721 yards, it was pretty much a given that he wouldn’t return. Sure enough, he recently inked a deal with the Arizona Cardinals.
The current RB depth chart includes Benny Snell, who ran for 368 yards and four scores, but 113 of those yards came in the opening win against the NY Giants.
The consensus is that Snell isn’t going to be the feature back in 2021, but he could earn more playing time once the season kicks off.
The team signed Kalen Ballage in free agency this offseason. Ballage was a fourth-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in 2018, and last season, he appeared in games with both the Los Angeles Chargers and New York Jets.
Ballage may not be a featured back, but the Steelers wouldn’t have inked him if they didn’t plan to use him in 2021.
That means this franchise, which had to juggle money just to bring back franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, will likely spend a high draft pick on a running back who can finally give this offense some semblance of balance.
If you haven’t been up on mock drafts or lists of the best running backs in the drafts, most believe that Travis Etienne of Clemson will be the first RB taken this year.
At 5-10, 215 pounds, it’s not a stretch to think that Etienne could be a three-down back for the Steelers, should he don the black and gold.
He could have been a high pick in the 2020 draft, but he elected to return to school for one more year. Now the Steelers could nab him at 24, though that’s unlikely. He’s had close to 700 college carries, so durability isn’t an issue for this bruiser.
While Etienne might find himself gone by the time the Steelers pick at 24, Pittsburgh also has their eyes on Alabama’s Najee Harris. At 6-foot-1, 232 pounds, Harris is an even bigger bruiser than Etienne.
Some speculate that Harris could touch the ball 300 times a season, something that the Steelers haven’t seen since the Le’Veon Bell experiment ended. Conner, who was given the reins to be the feature back, played in just 36 games and ran the ball 215, 116, and 169 times in the last three seasons.
Harris has also only fumbled twice (lost one) in his college career. Snell has coughed up the ball three times the last two seasons alone.
The Steelers have to have a plan after they finished last in the league in rushing yards (1,351) and yards per carry (3.6).
Expect that plan to start April 29th when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell takes the stage in Cleveland and announces the running game future of a team looking to give Roethlisberger one last memorable season.