Any time a football team struggles to run the ball, there will be questions about the play of the offensive line.
And there’s no question that the Steelers have struggled to run the ball. On the season, Pittsburgh’s 92.6 yards per game is 28th in the NFL, and it’s been even worse lately, with the team collecting a season-low 21 yards in a loss to Washington on Monday night.
Even 22 yards, if that one extra one had come when Benny Snell Jr. was stopped three times from the 1-yard line, would have been enough for the Steelers to win. But it probably would not have stopped the questions about what’s wrong with the Pittsburgh running game.
“There comes a time where that physicality has to be matched,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said on Thursday. “We have seen some pretty good front seven folks, but we have seen pretty good front seven folks before. It never felt like first-and-1 from the 1 [yard line], and you can’t get the ball in running the football.”
Fichtner did not have a specific answer for what has ailed the Pittsburgh ground attack, though it should be noted that starting running back James Conner and starting center Maurkice Pouncey have missed the last two games while on the COVID-19 reserve list.
“Sometimes it comes down to one man,” Fichtner said. “Sometimes it comes down just to the runner. That’s been a point of emphasis for us over the last week and a half, and we will continue to do that because it’s not what we want to be and who we aspire to be. I believe we have been good in those situations and we are capable of being good in those situations and the expectation is we have to be.”
Of course, while the offensive line’s efforts in the running game have been below the line, to use a phrase from head coach Mike Tomlin, they have been outstanding in protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers are the only NFL team averaging under one sack against per game.
“If you are going to get disappointed in maybe the physicality of the line and the run game, then you have to look to the flip side and say, ‘Well, from a pass protection standpoint, they’re keeping the quarterback as clean as they possibly can at probably the highest level in the league,’” Fichtner said. “There is a slight trade off. If you say maybe our players are built more like that to do that better, then maybe we are at this present time. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to keep working and trying to put ourselves in better positions to establish the run.”
In that regard, the Steelers will get a bit of a respite this week. After facing No. 13 Baltimore and No. 10 Washington in back-to-back weeks, they’ll get a crack at Buffalo’s No. 24 NFL rushing defense.