James Conner Remains Feature Back in Mike Tomlin's Backfield Plans

Noah Strackbein

PITTSBURGH -- For those looking for the Steelers backfield to be a committee in 2020, your hopes took a bit of a shot last week. 

In a conference call with fans, one question brought to head coach Mike Tomlin's attention was the plan for the running game. 

"I'm a feature runner type guy by mentality," Tomlin said when asked if running back will be a position by committee this season. I think that if you have a featured runner it gives them an opportunity to drop a stake in the ground and allows others to rally around him. It gives you a set of core phase run plays that he specializes in and you find a rhythm in that way."

James Conner was the Steelers feature back in 2018 for the first time in his NFL career. The former third-round pick recorded 973 yards and 12 touchdowns during Le'Veon Bell's holdout. In 2019, he missed six games due to multiple injuries, leaving an array of runners in the backfield to make up for his absence. 

"James is a feature runner and a proven guy when healthy and we're excited about him getting back to health and displaying that in 2020," Tomlin said. "Benny Snell is a guy who plays with a physical style in a similar manner as James and might be capable of being a James-type guy if James is unavailable."

In the midst of the answer, Tomlin did acknowledge the need for more runners in today's game. 

"But no question in today's game that a feature runner needs to be supplemented and supplemented by guys who are capable of doing similar things in case he misses time, but also supplemented by guys who are capable of doing different things to maybe challenge the defense in different ways and I think that's just the makeup of our group right now," he said.

He also mentioned fourth-round pick Anthony McFarland, who comes from Maryland after two years of playing, with 1,648 yards, 12 touchdowns and a 6.7 yards per carry average. 

"As you mentioned we're excited about McFarland, who brings a different component," said Tomlin. "He's got catch quickness and is quick to speed and is capable of producing big plays in open spaces. We like the collection of guys we have in the group."

And the final piece to the Steelers "improve the backfield" puzzle had to get a shoutout from his new coach.

"I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the addition of Derek Watt at the fullback position," said Tomlin. "We're excited about him. We're excited about what the group is going to do largely, but usually when it's doing well it's because you have a lead dog out front and that guy is the featured runner."

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