By Jeremy Hritz
There may not have been a weaker position for the Steelers last year than running back. Marred by disappointing rushing totals in nearly every game, making for a one dimensional offense, none of the Steelers runners were able to produce consistently and effectively.
Since the conclusion of the season, James Connor departed as a free agent for a fresh start with the Arizona Cardinals. During his tenure in Pittsburgh, he flashed potential, highlighted by a Pro Bowl second year, but was plagued by injuries in the seasons that followed and never developed into a bell cow the team historically has coveted.
The Beast Without a Carry (Soon to Change)
Entering the 2021 draft, it was publicly stated by Mr. Rooney that the running game had to be a priority, and that was done so through the drafting of Alabama running back, Najee Harris. While he has yet to take a single snap, his selection cemented his starting role, and he will be the featured runner on opening day, no questions asked. His balanced combination of speed, agility, power, hands, smarts, and attitude have created excitement around what he can bring to the team, and anything less than 1000+ yards would be viewed as a disappointment. While that is a lot of pressure for a rookie, it is his reality in Pittsburgh, and one that I believe isn’t too big for him.
Beyond Harris, things aren’t quite as clear, with Benny Snell, Jr., Anthony McFarland, Jaylen Samuels, and Kalen Ballage all in the mix for leftover carries.
Snell, a 4th round selection in 2019, is a power runner who can wear defenses down but does not provide an explosive element, nor a threat in the passing game. Last season, out of necessity, he was thrust into a starter role with inconsistent results. While he did run for over 100 yards in the opener against the Giants, his performance moving forward was uneven, showing the team he is better suited to be a reliever/compliment than he is to be a starter. His physicality and experience gained last season will establish him as the number 2 back.
McFarland is a different style of runner, able to hit the home run on any play with speed and agility aplenty. In Randy Fichtner’s offense last season, he was misused, and it seemed his carries were obligatory and forced, as opposed to being intentional and aligned with a game plan. Pairing McFarland with Matt Canada, who was his offensive coordinator in Maryland, is a blessing for him as Canada knows his talents and how best to use him. This knowledge should allow for a unique complimentary style to Harris’s balanced game, and McFarland should get 3-5 touches per game, possibly more if he can prove effective in his carries.
Beyond Snell and McFarland, Jaylen Samuels will enter camp for more than likely the final time, as he has peaked as a Steeler, and his contributions and value to the team are known and are limited. Not tremendously fast, not terribly difficult to tackle, and average in terms of YAC, the only way Samuels remains a Steelers is in the event of an injury.
Kalen Ballage: The Unknown
The unknown in the running back room is Kalen Ballage who spent the first part of his career with the Dolphins, then the Jets and Chargers. Ballage has only averaged 3.1 yards per carry over 3 seasons but he has scored 7 touchdowns in limited roles. At 6’1, 228 pounds, Ballage has the size, but not the instincts as a natural runner, though he does have special teams experience as a kick returner. If he can contribute anything in the running game in combination with his special teams experience, he could very well be the 4th RB on the team.
Fiinally, there is Trey Edmunds who was called up from the practice squad a few times last season due to injury and filled in adequately, but his time with the Steelers is likely done with the signing of Ballage.
RB Has Been Leveled Up with Harris
The bottom line is that the running back room is better than last season, but there are still a lot of uncertainties. Sure, we believe Harris can resurrect the running game, but in what way isn’t clear yet. Also, his style and workload will dictate the role the other backs play, so it will be fun watching their chemistry develop over the summer and through training camp.
There’s nowhere to go but up from 2020, and Harris will be doing the heavy lifting in the new season.