Sunday Morning Joe: To Fix the Running Game, Steelers Offensive Line is Focused on What's In Front Of Them
The Steelers 2019 offense has seen as many struggles as any in the NFL. Whether it's injuries, mishaps, or lack of success, this Mason Rudolph-led group has failed to find the potential they're aware they have.
The effect this has had on the ground game has kept a revolving door of running backs searching for answers. Pittsburgh has used five different running backs this season while they cope with injuries in the backfield. Those backs have produced one 100-yard performance, a 3.5 yard per carry average and only five touchdowns.
There's a challenge to working with a constantly changing rotation in the backfield, though. The Steelers are a key example of seeing different play styles in players - from the patience of Le'Veon Bell to the pass-catching strength of Jaylen Samuels and the downhill ability of Benny Snell Jr.
When the change happens on a weekly basis, sometimes mid-game, the cause-and-effect of having to adjust on the fly has shown itself. A challenge the entire coaching staff has dealt with on a weekly basis.
"Well, a lot of it is put on Eddie Faulkner, our running backs coach," Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner explained. "You know, you’ve got to get them prepared, and you’ve really got to kind of pick some of the things they’re capable of doing so that we know how to use them the right way. Sometimes when they just get here, you’re not really sure. So sometimes you find that out in game. You know, that’s the last place you want to find that kind of information out, but circumstances make it that way. You know, that’s why you go to training camp and you do all of those reps, and have all of the quality time with guys. You build up that confidence, player-coach, coach-player. A thing like that, you just don’t have a chance to do that now, and that’s okay. We’ve got to get them all prepared, and then see who you’ve got a chance to play with on Sunday."
That's the mentality in Pittsburgh this season. As the injury bug continued to wreak havoc, the Steelers have branded the "next man up" mentality into the locker room. Head coach Mike Tomlin couldn't recall a season where he's had to bring in this many players throughout the season.
It's an offense that's run by a backup quarterback and running back, who's top receiving option is now a rookie from Toledo, and who will now miss their Pro Bowl center for the next two weeks. It's been anything but ideal for the Steelers, but they're focused on remaining consistent.
"It's like everything in life, the more experience it gets easier," guard David DeCastro said. "So, it's tough having new guys come in and having to learn on the fly. We don't have to change anything up for us up front, really."
Inexperience has hindered the Steelers run game all season. Names like Tony Brooks-James, Trey Edmunds and now Kerrith Whyte have carried the ball for Pittsburgh this season as the team deals with injuries.
It's nothing new for Randy Fichtner. He may not have had a backfield this deteriorated, but he has seen his fare share of injuries to a backfield. This week, he'll be working with White entering the mix as James Conner misses his third game of the season. Working with Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell, White is expected to see immediate action only four days after signing with the team.
"You know, several years back, I can’t remember the running back from Arkansas, we brought him in on a Wednesday and he started for us on a Saturday in the playoffs against Baltimore," Fichtner said. "So these things have to happen. They do happen. I expect Whyte to be ready to go this Sunday, and really not have many limitations."
It doesn't matter who's in the backfield, though. The Steelers offensive line has made one things clear while working with a variety of runners - it's about who they're blocking, not who's running. Without open lanes and executed blocks, the ground game doesn't have a chance to begin with. So, to solve the issues running the ball, it starts with creating holes.
"I don't look at the backfield, I look at what's in front of me, and I think that every single week you have very good players who are trying to make plays," left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said. "So, you do what you can control and in this case, the Cincinnati Bengals have a very good front seven, so that's the challenge."
The rest isn't part of their control. Despite dealing with a variety of runners and run styles on a play-by-play basis, the offensive line can't focus on what type of runner is behind them. In their offensive game plan, each back is capable of filling the scheme correctly, with minor differences depending on how the offense plans for the week.
"Not really," DeCastro replied when asked if different running styles change the line's preparation. "People always ask that question, I think it's called pro style offense for a reason. It's very similar across the league, so everyone kind of knows how to run the schemes, but obviously there's little tweaks from team to team that everyone will have a different feel on, so it's just tough not having the reps and experience when guys come in."
The Steelers aren't ready to give up on anything yet. The run game has struggled, but overcoming injuries and lack of success is their goal. The plan remains to stick to the ground attack.
With Benny Snell's return and Jaylen Samuel's health increasing by the week, the backfield has a new look once again. Against a Cincinnati defense that's allowed 167 rushing yards per game, Fichtner says they're going to push the issue. And if it works, it could be the first step in changing the course of Pittsburgh's ability to run the football.
"Well, I like the idea that Benny Snell’s back to practice, and hopefully he’s still in a good position to be able to contribute and get back to us," Fichtner said. "So that always helps because he’s right here to be a runner, and I thought he was making some really nice strides the last time we saw him. So hopefully that’ll keep staying on track. You know, Jaylen’s [Samuels] now back for his third week after coming off his knee. I expect Jaylen to be a little bit better. You know, just truthful. We’ve got to take it upon ourselves to commit ourselves even more to the run at certain times, and I think that commitment shows in reps, and I don’t think at one-point last week, maybe later in the second half, that I did a good enough job of putting us in a position to run."