Staff changes just one piece of puzzle toward Steelers improving 32nd-ranked running game

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Joe Rutter, The Tribune-Review, Greensburg
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Feb. 20—The plan to correct the deficiencies in the Pittsburgh Steelers' running game is akin to putting together a puzzle. All of the pieces must interlock and have the same message when connected properly.

The puzzle was jumbled for much of the 2020 season, and the result was the worst rushing performance in the NFL. The Steelers ranked last in yards per carry and yards per game. That led to a pass-heavy offense that became predictable down the stretch and was a large reason the Steelers lost five of their final six games, counting the wild-card playoff loss at home to Cleveland.

Six times in the final 10 games of the regular season, the Steelers gained fewer than 50 yards on the ground.

"There's no question it's something that we have to address," team president Art Rooney II said last month. "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."

The Steelers previously had succeeded without a top-tier running game. Only once in Mike Tomlin's 14 seasons as coach have the Steelers finished with a ranking in the top 10. That was his inaugural year of 2007 (third). They appeared in two Super Bowls, winning one, with the No. 23 and No. 11 running games, respectively. And the Steelers fared no better than a No. 14 ranking in Mike Munchak's five years overseeing the offensive line.

But the Steelers have ranked no better than No. 29 in rushing in each of the past three seasons, each of which included a collapse in December. After the 2019 season, when the Steelers averaged 90.4 yards per game, Rooney publicly stated improving the running game was a priority.

When the production decreased to 84.4 yards last year, Rooney's threats no longer were idle. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett were among the staff members whose contracts were not renewed.

Matt Canada, promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator, and Adrian Klemm, who moves up to take Sarrett's spot, presumably earned their new roles based on a willingness to implement a fresh approach to the running game. The Steelers also hired former Atlanta Falcons offensive line coach Chris Morgan to assist Klemm.

"We've already started to make some changes to address that," Rooney II said. "There are more to come. I think we obviously are going to have probably some changes on the roster at running back this year."

Despite leading the Steelers in rushing in each of his three years as a starter, James Conner never cracked 1,000 yards as he struggled to stay healthy. The Steelers are expected to seek a replacement for Conner, who is an unrestricted free agent, early in the NFL Draft. Among the first-round possibilities for the Steelers, who hold the No. 24 overall pick, are Alabama's Najee Harris and Clemson's Travis Etienne.

Harris, at 230 pounds, is a power back. Etienne, at 200 pounds, has more finesse.

That is where general manager Kevin Colbert factors into the puzzle — not only in adding talent and depth at running back but also finding capable run blockers to play on a retooled offensive line. With center Maurkice Pouncey retiring and three tackles entering free agency, the Steelers have a chance to reshape the line with an improved running game in mind.

"How that comes together, it will be ongoing," Tomlin said. "The draft itself, it is stronger at the tackle position than it is at the interior. Center and guard, traditionally, is not a very strong group. The tackles are unusually deep this year. I think we can add players through the draft. Hopefully, we will be able to do some type of business in free agency, and we are always going to look at our own players first."

Another component will be getting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — provided he returns for an 18th season — to buy into the philosophical shift toward running the ball more consistently. The wide receivers and tight ends will be expected to do their part as blockers, too.

"I will look at it from the personnel standpoint," Colbert said last week. "And the group of guys that we had last year — the offensive line, the running backs, the wide receivers, the quarterbacks — it did not produce a good running game. I think, schematically, that's up for the coaches and up to coach Tomlin to figure out. And my input would be if we need to do certain things, schematically, there are the types of players that may be available to help us achieve that. It's a collective effort."

Colbert didn't absolve any aspect of the running game from blame — his efforts as GM included.

"You can't say the runners weren't good enough or the quarterbacks weren't good enough or the line wasn't good enough. To put out the kind of running game we did, no one was good enough," Colbert said.

"Again, that is a collective effort. We need to be better. ... We need to finish, and I think having a strong running game helps teams finish in that time of year."

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at jrutter@triblive.com or via Twitter .