The Pittsburgh Steelers had a strong start to the 2020 season, winning their first 11 games before faltering down the stretch.
But they had several significant issues that plagued the team throughout, and president Art Rooney II seems intent on fixing at least one of them this offseason.
The Steelers finished dead last in the NFL in rushing yards with 1,611 and were no better on a per-carry basis, also ranking 32nd with 3.6 yards per rushing attempt.
That effort, according to Rooney, needs to be rectified entering 2021 and he expects significant changes in that area. Some of those have already come, as offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett have not been retained.
Others may follow, as starting running back James Conner is set to enter free agency and seems unlikely to re-sign in Pittsburgh.
“I think we’ve already started to make some changes to address that, and there are more to come,” Rooney said on Thursday when speaking with members of the Pittsburgh media. “I think we obviously are going to have probably some changes on the roster at running back this year with James being a free agent. There’s no question it’s something that we have to address. 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.”
Part of that change will need to come just from focusing on the running game more, Rooney said. The Steelers were 27th in the league in rushing attempts with 373, and ran the ball less and less as the season went on, while abandoning some of the changes implemented by then-quarterbacks coach and now offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
“I’d say 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. “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. At times we had an outstanding passing game, and Ben [Roethlisberger] at times was almost unstoppable. But we didn’t always have four quarters where we were being successful at it. We know, I think, what kind of work we have to do, and hopefully we’ll be able to get it done.”
In addition to Conner’s departure, there could be more than impact the running game. Top blocking tight end Vance McDonald has already announced his retirement and center Maurkice Pouncey has been rumored to be close to doing the same. Tackles Alejandro Villanueva and Zach Banner and guard/tackle Matt Feiler are all set to become unrestricted free agents and guard David DeCastro is among the team’s potential salary cap casualties.
“I think it’s fair to say that this will probably be the most difficult salary cap challenge that we’ve had in a long time, maybe ever,” Rooney said. “So it’s going to be a busy off-season, that’s for sure.”