Pittsburgh Steelers backfield: Speed, power and versatility

The Pittsburgh Steelers ground game may be a three-headed monster this season.

In 2018, the Pittsburgh Steelers fell short of the playoffs after a 7-2-1 start. Mike Tomlin’s team dropped four of its final six games and one of the many reasons was not only the failure of the defense but a lack of commitment to the running game made the offense very one-dimensional and put too much on the arm of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

This past season, the same arm was available for only 90 minutes of football. The club had to rely on unproven Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner took his share of heat and some of that was due to the fact that once again, the running game appeared to be an afterthought.

Considering that the team was inexperienced behind center, you would have thought that the ground attack would take center stage. While injuries to James Conner were a factor, the combination of shaky offensive line play and a lack of focus on running attack saw the club rush for a disappointing 90.4 yards per contest.

But Conner is back, Matt Canada is the new quarterbacks coach and the team added a dynamite running back prospect in the fourth round in Maryland’s Anthony McFarland. In a recent Instagram interview with Maryland Terrapins coach Mike Locksley (via Donnie Druin of SI.com), Tomlin waxed poetically about his new member of the backfield.

“We feel like we got some talent in the backfield, but we feel like he’s got a skill set that’s a little bit different than the guys that we got in our backfield in terms of his speed and open grass ability.”

A year ago, then-rookie Benny Snell Jr. finished second on the team behind Conner (464) in terms of rushing yards (426). The power back did some work this offseason and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“You can tell he put in a lot of work in the offseason,” said Conner via Chris Adamski of TribLive.com. “He looks slim, fast, eager to learn. He looks ready, you know? I’m excited for him. He looks fast. He’s in shape. There will be big things coming from him.”

As for Conner, he was limited to 10 games this past season but still led the club with seven total touchdowns. He showed what he was capable of in 2018 when he racked up 1,470 yards from scrimmage and 13 scores in as many games. His 973 rushing yards was complimented with 71 receptions.

But he’s also yet to play a full season in three NFL campaigns. The backfield depth chart also includes Jaylen Samuels and former Philadelphia Eagles’ performer Wendell Smallwood.

The Pittsburgh Steelers won the AFC North with a 13-3 record in 2017. Over the past two seasons and regardless of circumstances, the team owns a combined 17-14-1 mark. Injuries, a lack of offensive balance and a number of other issues have led to the falloff.

But Conner, Snell and the intriguing McFarland make for an interesting trifecta capable of covering all bases. And that could add up to a bounce back year for not only Roethlisberger but the Pittsburgh offense overall.