Updated: Mar 6, 2021
(Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
The Steelers ranked dead last in rushing yards per game (84.4) and yards per carry (3.6) in 2020. The struggles in the run game were the main reason why offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett didn't have their contracts renewed after the season. Historically speaking, the Steelers have always been a dominating run team, but that has not been the case in the three seasons under Fichtner as the offensive coordinator.
The Steelers ranked 31st in rushing yards per game in 2018 (90.3), 29th (90.4) in 2019 and 32nd in 2020 (84.4). The Steelers' 1,351 rushing yards in 2020 were the fewest in franchise history. Also, the Steelers 84.4 yards rushing per game in 2020 was their fewest average since 1966 when they averaged 78.0 yards rushing per game.
The Steelers' run game started the season off strong with rushing over 100 yards in each of their first five games and had a 100-yard rusher in four of those games. In their last 12 games (including the wild-card game loss to Cleveland), the Steelers rushed over 100 yards just once (Week 11 against Jacksonville) and didn't have a 100-yard rusher in any games during that span.
Steelers president Art Rooney II spoke with members of the Pittsburgh media today and went over several topics. The biggest storyline was that Rooney told reporters that Ben Roethlisberger wants to come back and is willing to lower his cap hit to help the team out. Another interesting talking point was the Steelers' abysmal run game in 2020. Rooney made it clear that it needs to get better.
"We have to start with a commitment to the running game, and that's something that I'm not sure we've always had," Rooney said via Dale Lolley of DKPittsburghSports. "So, as we look at changes to the coaching staff, I think that'll be part of the mindset. Again, in terms of the people in this building at this point, I think everybody understands we're going to have to be better than that. Again, I think that that contributes to the inconsistency that we saw on offense."
Notice how Rooney mentioned changes on the coaching staff, which points toward the departure of Fichtner and Sarrett. The issues in the running game weren't just on the coaches, however, as they need better personnel. They have to retool the offensive line and get younger, along with getting better running backs. James Conner is a decent running back, but he's set to become an unrestricted free agent in March and it's unlikely that the Steelers would re-sign him. The rest of the running backs on the roster are just OK -- Benny Snell Jr., Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland are just not bell-cow running backs.
"I think we've already started to make some changes to address that, and there are more to come," Rooney said on some of the changes they've made to help improve the run game. "I think we obviously are going to have probably some changes on the roster at running back this year with James (Conner) being a free agent. There's no question it's something that we have to address. I think everybody in the building agrees that you can't finish 32nd in the league in running and feel you're going to have a successful season."
Last year, we saw some of Matt Canada's ideas implemented in Fichtner's offense like the pre-snap motions, shifts and jet sweeps early in the season, but they faded down the stretch. Canada is in full control now as the offensive coordinator and his ideologies will now be used in full force.
“I think some of the kinds of things that you're seeing in offenses around the league we need to employ in our offense,” Rooney said in regards to Canada being promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator and the system he brings to the table. “We did some of that this year. At times we got away from it, and that may have contributed to some of the inconsistency we had in the offense. We look forward to Matt coming in and really having another year to put his system in place, and we think he'll do a good job.”