Franco Harris says the Steelers need to focus on improving the running game
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The Steelers got off to a franchise-best 11-0 record to start the season. It appeared that the Steelers would be playing this Sunday in the Super Bowl or at the very least reach the AFC Championship Game. They didn't even get close though.
They won the AFC North and hosted a wild-card playoff game against the Browns, but they got bounced out of the tournament quickly as the Browns beat the Steelers 48-37. The Steelers turned the ball over four times and trailed Cleveland 28-0 at the end of the first quarter. They battled back to try to make a game out of it, but it was really over after the first quarter. It was one of the most embarrassing playoff losses in franchise history.
After the wild-card loss to the Browns, many in the media and some fans feel like the window is closed for the Steelers to win another Super Bowl with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, who turns 39 in March and is on the last year of his contract.
Former Steelers Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris was asked by Tommy Tran of CBS Sports on Tuesday about what the Steelers need to do to get back to the point of competing for a Super Bowl and ultimately winning it all.
"Well, you know what that was a little disappointing starting off 11-0, you know we're all tucked away in our homes, and but yet you had the excitement of the Steelers, 11-0," Harris said. "Things are looking good and then all of sudden it seemed like we hit this period of time where we had to play three games in 12 days, and like to me that really disrupted a lot of things. But I understand with COVID that there had to be some adjustments, but it really put a lot of strain on the Steelers I feel. And things just didn't click after that."
Harris heard the news that Roethlisberger wants to return and he's encouraged by the young wide receivers corps. However, he wants to see the Steelers get back to running the football successfully, which is something the Steelers have been dreadful at in the past three years.
"I hear Ben's coming back which is great, we have some great, great young receivers that I'm really excited about. But me being a running back we have to get that running game going," Harris said. "To me, that's the most crucial part of the game, is the running game, so we need to put some focus on that."
Harris also joked that he won't be returning to the Steelers to help boost their run game.
"No, I'm not coming back. I'm retired."
Steelers president Art Rooney II would agree with Harris' assessment that the Steelers need to get the run game going. Rooney told reporters last Thursday the Steelers need to be more committed to the run game.
"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."
The Steelers ranked dead last in rushing yards per game (82.5) 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. The Steelers promoted Matt Canada to offensive coordinator and elevated Adrian Klemm to offensive line coach to replace Fichtner and Sarrett.
The Steelers need to address the offensive line and running back early in this year's draft, as the offensive line looked old and tired in 2020, and James Conner is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March and the Steelers most likely won't re-sign him.
Conner is a decent running back, but he's not a top-tier player at the position. The Steelers will probably draft an offensive lineman in the first round, as Maurkice Pouncey is reportedly expected to retire, and Alejandro Villanueva is an unrestricted free agent and could retire as well this offseason.
The Steelers might not pick a running back in the first round, but they should address it at least in the first three rounds. As Day 3 running back draft picks by the Steelers in the last three years haven't really been all that successful. Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland Jr. are just not No. 1 running backs.