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2021 NFL Draft

Saunders: First Round Pick Last Best Chance for Steelers to Fulfill Promise of Fixing Running Game



One of the top priorities for the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason, as dictated by president Art Rooney II and echoed by general manager Kevin Colbert at multiple points since the end of the 2020 season has been to rectify the team’s dead-last rushing attack from a year ago.

But through free agency, the Steelers didn’t do a lot to improve the team’s running-game personnel.

In fact, one could make a solid argument that the team’s running outlook has gotten worse since the calendar flipped, with center Maurkice Pouncey and top blocking tight end Vance McDonald retiring, left guard Matt Feiler and running back James Conner departed via free agency and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva likely to follow.

The only additions to the group have been the re-signing of tackle Zach Banner and depth additions like offensive linemen Rashaad Coward, B.J. Finney and Joe Haeg and running back Kalen Ballage.

So the team’s No. 1 offseason priority — or perhaps No. 2 behind retaining starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — has been largely undressed to this point.

That’s one of the reasons that center, tackle and running back have been some of the most-linked positions to the Steelers this draft season, despite other needs at linebacker and cornerback, is that top-down focus on the running game.

But does that mean the Steelers will take the best running back available with No. 24? Not necessarily.

“When you look at the running game, obviously you’ve got to start up front, and then you’ve got to look at the runners themselves,” general manager Kevin Colbert said on Monday. “Who knows what we’ll end up doing with those positions, be it center, guard, or tackle. And of course the running back position, we have really four veteran guys on this roster. Could we add to it? Sure. How that all breaks down, no one will know. Until we get in and play a game, no one will know if it’s better. But as of right now, we know where we can look at help and see what help is available, but again, we could go into this thing, and we are going into it completely wide open.”

In fact, the Steelers certainly sound like they feel they’ve already made a significant improvement with the overhaul of their offensive coaching staff. Matt Canada and Adrian Klemm were promoted to offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, giving the team fresh blood at crucial spots.

“The improvements in the running game go beyond just the acquisition of additional players,” head coach Mike Tomlin said. “We’re capable of performing better than we have, players aside. Schematics, formations, the things that we do to give ourselves a strategic advantage need to be improved, and that’s some of the things that we’re working on.”

That’s true, and a new scheme could certainly breathe some life into the Pittsburgh ground game. But the personnel is just as clearly lacking, with a stark lack of pedigree. Of the team’s five projected offensive line starters, two were signed as free agents off the street, there is a third- and fourth-round pick and guard David DeCastro was a first-rounder nine years ago. No. 2 tight end Kevin Rader was also a street free agent and top running back Benny Snell Jr. was a fourth rounder. That’s just not a lot of pedigree for a unit that’s expected to gain more importance moving forward with Roethlisberger entering the final stage of his career.

In the three days of the draft, the Steelers will almost certainly address some of their needs at running back, offensive line and blocking tight end. They can get players at those positions later in the draft. But if the team is serious about its dedication to repairing a once-great running game, look for that rebuilding process to start early.

When Tomlin was asked on Monday about the draft process and who makes the final decisions in the team’s war room, he reiterated twice that Rooney is “the boss.” Rooney’s most consistent theme in public speaking this offseason has been improving the running game. The Steelers will find a way to shore it up Thursday night.

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