Reinforcing the digital age truth that, “Old storylines don’t die. They just fade away. And then they return,” Le’Veon Bell made the news by offering an apology to Steelers fans for his 2018 holdout.
The response in much if not most of Steelers Nation is, “It’s about time.”
Here the thinking differs: The only one that Le’Veon Bell truly owes and apology to is himself.
Let’s concede that this isn’t a black and white issue. Bell may owe his teammates an apology. We’ll talk about that a moment. But Bell neither owes the Steelers organization nor their fans an apology. The only person he needs to say “I’m sorry” to his the person staring at him in the mirror.
Le’Veon Bell departing the gridiron at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: EPA, via the New York Post
The only thing separating the Steelers from the playoffs, if not more, was an injury to James Conner. And, almost as if on cue, Conner got hurt. Would Le’Veon Bell have helped those 2018 Steelers down the stretch? Maybe even enough to get them into the playoffs or more?
But Bell wouldn’t have helped them at inside linebacker. Nor is it logical to think his presence would have defused Antonio Brown’s meltdown.
Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II knew there were risks in franchising Bell. They accepted those as well as the opportunity costs of not using that money to shore up the middle of their defense and/or deepening their backfield.
That’s simply not Bell’s fault.
Why Bell Might Owe His Teammates and Apology
The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com
Bell provoked and uproar in the Steelers locker room when he failed to show for the first day of regular season practice. Maurkice Pouncey called him out. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell asserted, “Losing Pouncey? That’s analogous to Lyndon Johnson losing Cronkite.”
NFL players have a code.
Unlike fans, they understand deep down in their bones that this is a business and that their teammates need to make contract decisions based the own self-interest. With that understood, Bell had provided his teammates with assurances that he’d play on his franchise tender.
And when he went back on his word, Bell broke the code.
Time heals all wounds. Has enough time pass for Le’Veon and the rest of his former teammates? That’s not for me to say. But let’s acknowledge that its possible an apology is due there.
The Man in the Mirror
When Le’Veon Bell declined the Steelers (second) long term contract offer in the hopes of “resetting the market” for running backs, he was betting on himself.
Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Given his play declined in 2019 and then dropped off like a rock after that, the notion seems laughable today.
But hindsight is 20/20. When Le’Veon Bell held out he was one season removed from breaking the Pittsburgh Steelers single game regular season and playoff rushing records. That’s something neither John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris, nor Jerome Bettis – all Hall of Famers – ever did.
In one sense, I admire the man for putting his money where his mouth was.
The cold hard, football reality is that he did Pittsburgh a favor by refusing to sign a long-term contract.
The cold, hard, financial reality is that Bell would have been far off had he signed the deal his agent reached with the Steelers in 2017 or the one they offered in 2018. Instead, Bell left money on the table – a lot of money.
And that’s a decision he’s got to explain to the man in the mirror.
Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. You are wise don your Doubting Thomas cap on this one. But before we delve into the nuances of the question, let’s look at the facts.
Could we see Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren paired in the same backfield? Photo Credit: Jordan Schofield via SteelerNation.com
First, Kaboly doesn’t simply acknowledge that fans have a right to be skeptical, he gives them reasons to reinforce their skepticism. He points out that the combos of Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, and Harris and Warren have been on the field a total of 24 times.
However, he gets Jaylen Warren on the record explaining, “They have said they are planning to find ways to get us both on the field at the same time and just do different things with me.”
Kaboly goes further to point out that Matt Canada has been tinkering with a two-back offense and cites the success the Steelers had last year when they had two backs on the field. (Fun Fact: While its clear the Steelers won’t bring Derek Watt back, they were 7-1 in games where Watt got a carry. Just say’in…)
We have heard stories like this come out of OTAs before.
In fact in 2019 Jim Wexell got confirmation from Jaylen Samuels that the Steelers were experimenting with putting him in the same backfield as James Conner. By Kaboly’s count, that happened 11 times in 2019.
And of course they’ve been other rumblings at other points in the 21st century about the two back offense returning to Pittsburgh, just as stories about “this year the Steelers will give the fullback a few carries each game” and “we’re gonna throw to the tight end more” were training camp staples during the 1990’s. That never happened.
But why then, might this time be different?
Well, let’s just say that Kaboly has established some credibility here.
2022 was a banner year for the Steelers rushing attack. For the first time since 2007, Mike Tomlin ran Willie Parker “Until the wheels fell off,” the Steelers rushed for over 2,000 yards.
That’s a dramatic improvement for a franchise that has struggled to run the ball consistently ever since James Conner got injured in the middle of the 2018 season.
Do the Steelers need to address running back in the 2023 NFL Draft to sustain that improvement? Let’s find out.
Derek Watt blocks for Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
Steelers Depth Cart at Running Back: The Starter
In his rookie season Najee Harris became the first Steelers running back to crack the 1000 yard mark since Le’Veon Bell in 2017. In his sophomore season, Najee Harris became the first Steelers back to have back-to-back 1000 yard seasons since Bell’s ’17 campaign.
It wasn’t easy.
As a rookie, Harris ran behind a weak offensive line, but succeeded in running strong and, at times, making it look easy. Harris suffered a foot injury in training camp and the offensive line’s run blocking was subpar during the first half of the season.
Harris struggled through the first 8 weeks of the season. Many of his critics pounced, arguing that his mediocre rushing averages proved that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert had erred in investing a first round pick in him in 2021.
But if his stat line failed to impress, for my money, Harris continued to pass the “eye test” early in the season. The fight was there, even if the blocking wasn’t, and it seemed obvious he was nursing an injury.
Like they did with nearly everyone else on the team, Steelers Nation saw a different Najee Harris after the bye week. Harris began running with authority and power, 6 of his seven touchdown, and logging 3 90 yard plus games, including 111 yard effort in the road win over the Ravens.
Perhaps most impressively, Harris earned his second straight 1000 yard season while playing nearly 20% fewer snaps than he had in 2021.
Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups
The emergence of Jaylen Warren is the reason why Najee Harris was able to remain on the sidelines for close over 200 more snaps than he had has a rookie. Warren made the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent, first earning a roster spot and then carving out a role as their third down back.
As a rookie, Jaylen Warren played in 31% of the Steelers offensive snaps, both on third downs and rotating in with Harris. He only ran for 379 yards with a season-high effort of 76 against the Ravens, but he proved himself to be a true number 2 running back.
Beyond Warren on the depth chart is Anthony McFarland. McFarland returns to the Steelers on a futures contract, after spending 2022 on the practice squad, save for his activation against the Colts. McFarland only ran for 30 yards in that game and caught 2 passes for 11 yards, but for the first time since the Steelers drafted him in 2020, he looked like he belonged in the NFL.
The Steelers also have Jason Huntley and Master Teague on their roster.
The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs at Running Back
As of this writing, both Derek Watt and Benny Snell remain unsigned. The Steelers may have seen enough from McFarland to pencil him in as the third string running back, but there’s no one on the roster remotely capable of taking Watt’s spot.
The Steelers need to beef up their depth at running back this off season, but lacking a 5th and 6th round pick, they’ll be hard-pressed to do it in the draft. Which is a shame because their need at running back going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as Fair.
Anthony McFarland lays claim to an active roster spot. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
McFarland was an enticing choice, a smaller faster back, the type of back which the Steelers had tried and failed to add in Chris Rainey in 2012 and Dri Archer in 2014. And for the next two years, McFarland followed in their footsteps.
As a rookie, McFarland appeared in 11 games and had 33 carries. He was a footnote in an offense that struggled to run the ball. That dropped to two games and 3 carries in 2021, the second of which consisted of mop up duty in a blowout loss to Cincinnati.
The Steelers cut him in 2022 but added him to the practice squad.
But an injury to Jaylen Warren got Anthony McFarland elevated from the practice squad for the Colts game, and an in-game injury to Najee Harris helped get McFarland on the field. And while his 41 all purpose yards on 8 touches hardly makes him a Fantasy Football star, for the first time Anthony McFarland looked like he belonged in the NFL.
Perhaps that’s fitting.
McFarland came out of Maryland as a sophomore, so in another generation 2022 would have been his rookie year.
NFL teams routinely sign and release players to and from futures contracts at this time of year, so there’s no assurance that McFarland will still hold a roster spot when the 2023 NFL Draft arrives, let alone with the Steelers start training camp at St. Vincents.
Benny Snell celebrates after scoring the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: AJ Mast,. AP via The San Diego Tribune.
But the Steelers decision to resign Anthony McFarland is and under that radar signal of their commitment to running the the ball will continue in 2023.
Mike Tomlin has been infamous for rushing his running backs “until the wheels come off” (see Willie Parker, Le’Veon Bell and to a lesser extent Rashard Mendenhall), yet refused to staff deep backfields behind his starter.
Anthony McFarland was only 1 of 16 players to sign or resign with the Steelers. Ten of the players who’ve inked futures contracts spent all or part of the 2022 season in Pittsburgh on the practice squad:
Cody White, wide receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley, wide receiver Rodney Williams, tight end Master Teague, running back Jason Huntley, running back Emeke Egbule, linebacker William Dunkle, guard Duke Dawson, defensive back Scott Nelson, defensive back Ryan McCollum, center
The Steelers also welcome several new faces to Pittsburgh:
Dez Fitzpatrick, wide receiver Madre Harper, defensive back Kenny Robinson, defensive back Chris Wilcox, defensive back
What if I told you that a particular Pittsburgh running back rushed for 136 yards on 29 carries (4.68 yards per rush) and added another 40 yards on three receptions in the Steelers’ most recent game?
You’d take it, right? Heck, you might even think this running back deserved low-key consideration for NFL Offensive Player of the Week.
Derek Watt blocks for Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
If you were a Steelers fan, you’d also likely assume that the running back was Najee Harris, a second-year player who couldn’t have been more of a workhorse in 2021 when he accumulated 381 total touches.
You’d be right to assume that, too, considering Najee Harris’s head coach is named Mike Tomlin, a man who’s never met a starting back he had no problem running until his wheels fell off.
Your assumption would be off, however, at least if you made it about Pittsburgh’s 20-10 victory over the Saints at Acrisure Stadium last Sunday.
No single Steelers running back accumulated the aforementioned stat line.
Instead, the division of labor was divided up, if you will, with Harris toting the rock 20 times for 99 yards, while rookie Jaylen Warren, a UDFA from Oklahoma State, tallied 37 rushing yards on nine carries and added another 40 receiving yards on three catches.
In the days leading up to the game against New Orleans, there was talk — right from the horse’s mouth, in fact (Tomlin’s) — that Warren could and should get a bigger role in the Steelers’ offense.
But that had to be just talk from Tomlin. Right?
It was just a way to motivate his bell cow running back, Najee Harris, who had struggled mightily over the first eight weeks of the 2022 campaign. Tomlin has always seemed allergic to the running-back-by-committee approach. If you don’t believe me, ask LeGarrette Blount. If you don’t want to believe Blount (and I can certainly understand why you’d be afraid to even ask him a question), you can ask DeAngelo Williams, a much better teammate than Blount. Unlike Blount, who was cut shortly after leaving the field before the end of a Monday Night Football game against the Titans back in 2014, Williams was happy with his role as the backup to star running back, Le’Veon Bell.
DeAngelos Williams proved to be valuable in 2015, his first season in Pittsburgh, when he filled in for a suspended Bell to start the year and, again, for an injured Bell over the final two months of the regular season.
Williams was again valuable and extremely productive over the first three games of the 2016 regular season when Bell was suspended a second time for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
But in spite of Williams’s success (and pleas from this site), when Bell was in the Steelers’ lineup, the former’s role was drastically reduced.
To reiterate, Mike Tomlin has never evolved beyond his bell cow running back philosophy.
Or maybe he has.
Harris and Warren worked beautifully together. You have to credit Tomlin for allowing it to happen, but you also have to credit offensive coordinator Matt Canada for finding a way to utilize both running backs effectively.
Is this the start of a new philosophy for Tomlin? Is he going to finally ease up on his starting running back?
I suppose we’re about to find out over the next few weeks.
Staff writer Tony Defeo recently published an article waxing on what it’s like to be a Steelers fan reaching 50. With a nod to Jimmy Buffett, its titled “A Steelers Fan Looks at 50.”
While I’m still a few months (ok, weeks) from passing the half century mark myself, it got me thinking about some of the unique touchstones that mark me and my fellow Generation Xers as Steelers fans.
Here is my list:
Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann
1. You had this photo on your wall.
In 1980, you could get a copy of this photo of Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Terry Bradshaw through a promo run by either the Pittsburgh Press or Giant Eagle. My aunt and God Mother who lived in Monroeville called down to Maryland asking if my brother and I wanted copies. Of course we did! They hung on our bedroom walls just as they hung on yours for years to come.
2. You remember when Pittsburgh really was the Steel City.
Arriving in Pittsburgh from Maryland usually meant taking the Parkway into downtown from the Turnpike. So my first views of Pittsburgh were of J&L’s blast furnaces. They were truly awesome. (Don’t try Googling the terms, just trust memory here.) They were just as awesome as the gastly smells you’d have to endure as we took Carson Street to Becks Run Road en route to Brentwood-Carrick.
The mills are long gone, but seeing them, even in their twilight, was special.
3. You thought Queen wrote “We Are the Champions” for the Steelers.
My older sister and brother told me that Queen had written “We are the Champions” for the Steelers. As a naïve first grader I believed them. But why shouldn’t I have? The Steelers were the champions. At 6 years old that felt like a permanent condition.
4. You parents had to convince you that the Steelers were terrible once.
My parents are Pittsburghers to their cores, but neither is a football fan. When I asked them what it was like rooting for the Steelers when they were kids, my mom would explain “You have to understand. The Steelers and Pirates were terrible when we were kids.” History proves them right, especially for the Steelers. But I sure was one skeptical seven year old.
I got one of these from my older cousin David. I couldn’t WAIT to grow into it! Photo Courtesy of @Vintage Steelers
5. Kids made fun of you as you kept wearing Steelers stuff into the 80’s.
My inventory of Steelers stuff remained well stocked through elementary school thanks to hand-me downs from my older brother and my cousin. What didn’t stay well stocked was the Steelers inventory of wins. And kids, as they are wont to do, made fun of me for wearing Steelers stuff to school.
I wore my gear anyway, because Steelers fans are loyal.
6. Hearing the words “Immaculate Reception” caused you to run to the TV.
Today you can watch the “Immaculate Reception” at the touch of a button while say, slogging through Buenos Aires down Aveneda Directorio on Bus 126 from Flores to Puerto Madero if you so choose.
But I remember as a kid my older brother made a point of showing me the “Immaculate Reception” while watching NFL Films. And for the next several decades, I made it a point to watch the play every chance I got. Kids today are spoiled indeed.
7. You often learned of the results from Sunday’s games on Monday morning.
This is unique to children of the Pittsburgh diaspora, but before the age of the internet, or even cable TV there were plenty of times when I’d have to wait until Monday morning to learn the results of Sunday’s Steelers game. And in the ‘80s, that could lead to a lot of downers at the breakfast table. Although there were pleasant surprises….
8. The 1989 Steelers will always carry a special place in your heart.
The Boomers before us and the Millennials came after us who were reared on Super Bowls don’t understand. But we do. Starting in 1987 we saw flashes of greatness. We even convinced ourselves we could glimpse positives in the 3-1 close to the dismal 5-11 1988 campaign.
The 1989 Steelers story book season validated our faith and we felt like we’d closed the door on the 80’s by opening the door to a second Super Bowl era. That didn’t happen, but boy, it sure felt good to believe.
9. When fans attack the offensive coordinator your reflex is: “Yeah. …But Joe Walton was worse.”
Offensive coordinators are the favorite whipping boys of Steelers fans, whether you’re talking about Chan Gailey, Ray Sherman, Kevin Gilbride, Bruce Arians or Todd Haley. But Generation X Steelers fans know that none of them was worse than Joe Walton, even if in middle age we’ve grown to appreciate Walton as an outstanding person who did a lot of Western Pennsylvania football at Robert Morris.
10 a. The split back or “Pro” style offense looks normal.
Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo
10 b. You still scream for the fullback to get carries.
Your mind understands how and why the game has changed, but every time “they” talk about cutting Jerome Bettis, Le’Veon Bell’s or Najee Harris’ workload your heart screams “Why can’t they just let the fullback run the ball?”
11. Jimmy Pol’s Western Pennsylvania Polka is the only Steelers fight song.
OK. Let’s concede that James Psihoulis’ aka Jimmy Pol’s fight song is the property of our parent’s and our grandparent’s generation. But I first heard the song during the ’93 season on my first trip to a Steelers bar (Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon no less).
It was the sound of heaven. Listen for yourself:
I mean no disrespect to “Here We Go,” “Black and Yellow,” “Climbing the Stairway to Seven,” or any of the other fight songs. But the “Western Pennsylvania Polka,” from Jimmy Pol’s thick Pittsburgh accent, to the passion in which he implores “…Let’s go and score, and never ever yield!” while invoking Joe Greene, Chuck Noll’s “hunky friends,” Franco’s Army and Gerela’s Gorillas perfectly preserves the Super Steelers and Pittsburgh’s essence.
12. You once thought Dan Rooney was “Cheap” or you defended him.
In the 1990’s, spring free agent exoduses out of Pittsburgh were the norm. In the days before Heinz Field, the Steelers didn’t have the revenue to compete. Fans didn’t want to hear it and wrote Dan Rooney off as “cheap,” while others, like me, defended him. These arguments were staples of our 20-something bar room banter.
13. When there’s a special teams coaching vacancy, you scream “Bobby April!”
Atrocious special teams plagued Bill Cowher’s1993 Steelers. He responded by hiring Bobby April who rejuvenated the unit and cemented his cult-hero status with the successful surprise on-sides kick in Super Bowl XXX.
Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com
14. Number 95 is sacrosanct.
Whether “Just Plain Nasty,” or “I wasn’t hired for my disposition” lights your fire, you loved your “Avoid Lloyd” shirt and you instinctively know that no other Pittsburgh Steeler else can ever live up to the standard that Greg Lloyd set when he donned number 95.
15. You try, and fail, to explain Myron Cope to a new generation.
In 1992, Sports Illustrated described Myron Cope as the soul of the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were right. Yet Myron was someone to be experienced in real time, and attempts to explain him ultimately fall short. But it is your duty to try.
There you go in Steelers Nation. Those are my top 15 (ok, 16) memories or touchstones that unique to Generation X Steelers fans.
Is this a definitive list? I certainly hope not!
While we all share a love for the Black and Gold, each of us has your unique way of finding it. Take a moment to leave a comment and share your additions to the list. (Comments are moderate to keep out the spammers and tolls, but if you write something it will get published.)
I just turned 50 not long ago, and I don’t know if you know anything about math and age, but that’s getting up there in both categories.
Yes, 50 is the new 40, but try telling that to the 38-year-old at the bar who thinks you’re ancient while watching you try to look hip as you bust out a tune on Karaoke Night. (For the record, I don’t blame that 38-year-old one bit, because that’s what I thought about 50-year-olds 12 years ago.)
Image Credit: 274 Sports Pittsburgh
Anyway, as it pertains to the Pittsburgh Steelers, I have been watching this team play football since January of 1980 when I was just seven. That’s a long time to watch any sports franchise do anything. Fortunately for yours truly, the great memories far outweigh the bad ones. My first memory — Super Bowl XIV between the Steelers and Rams –showcased quarterback Terry Bradshaw, the MVP of the Big Game for the second year in a row, and his awesome talents. My most recent Steelers memory, a blowout loss to the Chiefs in a wildcard playoff game this past January, was the last hurrah for legendary quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after 18 glorious seasons.
Needless to say, I’ve seen a lot of great things as a Steelers fan over the years. Even the seasons in between The Blond Bomber and Big Ben weren’t all that bad in terms of success on the football field.
Yes, the 1980s were kind of meh after the incredible success of the previous decade. However, there were still some great moments to cherish, like the upset of the Broncos in the divisional round of the 1984 playoffs, as well as the thrilling overtime wildcard road win over the hated Oilers to close out the decade.
What about the 1990s under new head coach, Bill Cowher, who had the unenviable task of succeeding the legendary Chuck Noll on the sidelines of old Three Rivers Stadium? The Chin sure had TRS rocking again like the Super ’70s, right? And while the Steelers never brought home One For The Thumb in Cowher’s initial postseason run when he took Pittsburgh to the playoffs during his first six seasons, in many ways, it was the most fun I’ve ever had watching my favorite football team.
Obviously, the decade of the 2000s saw Cowher finally bring his hometown team a fifth Lombardi Trophy with a win in Super Bowl XL. Not long after that, Mike Tomlin, who took over for Cowher as head coach in 2007, gave us “Got Six?” following a thrilling victory over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.
As far as post-Super Bowl decades go, the 2010s weren’t nearly as meh as the 1980s. In fact, the Steelers’ 2000s run bled over into the 10s when they advanced to Super Bowl XLV before losing a heartbreaker to the Packers down in Dallas.
Holy smokes, I just realized we’re only months away from witnessing the Steelers’ third regular-season campaign of the 2020s. That means that the 2000s are like the ’70s to someone in their early-20s. Yikes. Not only have they grown up only knowing Roethlisberger as the Steelers quarterback, they probably have no clue who Bradshaw even is, or if they do, he’s like who Johnny Unitas was to me as a kid — someone who played in the Before Time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
What about those little kids out there right now who barely even know about Roethlisberger?
I remember where I was when the Steelers cut Franco Harris. I know exactly where I was standing when I learned that the Steelers had traded for Jerome Bettis. I can still recall the sick feeling that I had in the pit of my stomach when Le’Veon Bell suffered a hyperextended knee on the eve of the 2014 postseason. I still have the text from my brother, who has a source within the Steelers organization, that informed me before just about anyone else that Pittsburgh was going to select Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Again, I’ve seen a lot. I know this because younger people I argue with on Twitter now say things to me like, “I’m not wasting my time trying to reason with some old dude who probably has low testosterone.” Yes, while it’s true that my t-levels are probably lower at the age of 50 than they were at the age of 25, what does that have to do with my opinion on the Steelers’ backup running back situation?
Anyway, even though I’m now officially old (if I already wasn’t in my 40s), I still love the game of football as much now as I ever did. I respect its evolution. I don’t yearn for the days of Yesteryear when Smashmouth football was all the rage and “Defense Wins Championships” was a mantra that everyone actually believed to be true.
I’m a football purist, but only in the sense that I think the game is a pure joy to watch. I still get those butterflies in my stomach when the calendar turns to July and I know that we’re right on the doorstep of another Steelers training camp.
My only concern is what my response will be to the next Steelers title. Will it feel as magical to me as an older fan as the march to
Super Bowl XL
Bill Cowher hands Dan Rooney the Lombardi Trophy. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review
did when I was 33? I often think back to that two-month period from December of 2005 to February of 2006 when the Steelers went on their historic run and never stopped winning until they finally added a fifth Lombardi to their trophy case.
I may have been approaching my mid-30s, but I felt like a little kid during that eight-game winning streak.
Will I ever have that feeling again? How do older sports fans, especially ones who have already witnessed a few championships, respond to a team winning it all? Is it just as fulfilling as it was in your youth?
Running back isn’t the glory position that it once was. Long gone are the days when a running back could serve as the focal point of an offense, let alone a franchise. This scribe wondered aloud whether Le’Veon Bell might revive the concept of “franchise running backs.”
A half dozen years later, the question seems so hopelessly quaint that’s like suggesting black & white TV sets and rotary phones will make a comeback.
But if that’s true, its also true that lack of running back depth as much as anything else derailed the Steelers chances to get Lombardi Number 3 during the Ben Roethlisberger era. The question heading into the 2022 NFL Draft is will the Steelers heed that lesson now that Roethlisberger has retired?
Najee Harris en route to 188 yards. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come
Steelers Depth Chart at Running Back: The Starter
Running back has become so devalued in the modern NFL that drafting one in the first round is now concerned to be foolhardy. A year ago Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert proved once again that they march to their own drummer when they drafted Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
One could look to Najee Harris’ 1,200 yards rushing, 73 catches and 10 touchdowns as proof that Colbert and Tomlin were right. One could bolster those arguments by pointed to the fact that the Steelers run defense was horrendous for most of the season.
Those are all solid arguments, but neither proves the point.
For proof that the Steelers made the right call on drafting Harris look no further than the 2021 season finale on the road against the Baltimore Ravens. Harris got injured during the first half. He worked on the sidelines, learning to carry the ball with his left hand and made at least 3 critical plays during over time to get Chris Boswell in position to kick the game winner.
Technically, Derek Watt is also considered the Steelers “starter” at fullback, but he only average 6.5% of the offensive snaps.
His rushing average has dropped from 3.9, to 3.2 to 2.7 yards per carry, although he only had 36 attempts in 2021. And in all fairness to Snell, the quality of the Steelers run blocking has declined during his time with the team.
The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft out of the University of Maryland to serve as a change of pace back. In 2 NFL season McFarland has appeared in just 13 games, carrying the ball 36 times for 116 yards. He’s also caught 7 passes for 65 yards.
The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Running Back
Lack of running back depth crippled the Steelers during the latter half of the Roethlisberger-Tomlin era. Yet, until 2021, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin showed zero inclination to altering their backfield staffing strategy. Last year the Steelers went into the season with Harris, Snell, McFarland and Kalen Ballage plus Derek Watt as their fullback.
So at least the running back depth chart had quantity.
But what it lacked was quality. And the Steelers still lack that quality. Mike Tomlin has tried to staff a utility back in the mold of Eric Metcalf or Dave Meggett (oh, how I do date myself) with the likes of Chris Rainey and Dri Archer. Both failed miserably. Anthony McFarland appears poised to follow in their footsteps.
In contrast, Benny Snell has shown something and even at this stage of his career retains some “upside.” But in this writer’s opinion Benny Snell isn’t a true number 2 running back and is better suited as a number 3.
The absence of a DeAngelo Williams like player who could shoulder the load should Harris go down means that the Steelers need at running back going into the 2022 NFL Draft is Moderate-High.
“I’m ready to move on, man, and I’m serious. I wouldn’t be upset if Ben decided to retire after this season and the team sunk to the bottom of the NFL for a year or two.”
That was you for the past few years, and the “Ben” you were referring to was the ever-aging Ben Roethlisberger, the legendary quarterback of the Steelers for many years. Alas, Roethlisberger’s reign in Pittsburgh ended after 18 seasons, and he officially announced his retirement following a blow-out wildcard playoff loss to the Chiefs to close out the 2021 campaign.
Now you, the Steeler fan, get your wish.
The Steelers could, in fact, sink to the bottom of the NFL for a year or two.
Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com
Not according to the fans, at least the ones on social media who can’t seem to shut up about the Steelers and what big moves they’ll make with the new calendar year — along with unrestricted free agency — set to kick off at 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
Heck, the fans on social media can’t even handle all of the rumors swirling around without losing it and worrying about the Steelers falling behind every other team in the AFC North, including the Browns, who acquired receiver Amari Cooper from the Cowboys on Saturday.
So, why would the Steelers go after a Cooper if they are now in full-rebuild mode following Roethlisberger’s retirement? Also, why would they give up the farm to acquire Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson?
The Steelers Killer Bees were too true to their name. Photo Credit: pegitboard.com
Again, you wanted a rebuild, right? You said you were exhausted by all of those seasons that didn’t result in more Super Bowls–as fun as some of those years may have been with Big Ben and the other Killer B’s, including Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, pulling the wagon.
I don’t know how an observer of things can actually be exhausted, but you know who is probably really exhausted after 13 years of trying to reach Seventh Heaven? The Steelers. Seriously, they’re like that young doctor on Day 3 of no sleep. They’re downing caffeine. They’re splashing cold water on their face. They’re doing everything that can to stay sharp, but that knife is now pretty dull.
It’s time for a rest.
The Steelers now have more cap space than they normally know what to do with, and with free agency just on the horizon, I fully expect them to do things to build up their roster. They may even make a splash signing or two.
But would that signify a quick end to the rebuild? No, I think it’s just getting started. However, it doesn’t necessarily have to last forever. A few moves here, a few moves there, and suddenly you’re back to being a serious contender again, one full of fresh legs and quick-twitch muscle fibers.
In the meantime, the Steelers and their fans may have to sit back for a season or two and watch other teams “go for it.”
Will it suck? How can it not? Will it be frustrating to listen to all of those talking heads mock the Steelers for falling behind in the annual off-season Lombardi race? Sure.
But those talking heads never seem to grow tired.
Football teams sometimes do.
Let the Steelers get some sleep in 2022. They’ll be awake again to fight another day.
In 2021 the staffed quantity on the depth chart behind starter Najee Harris and that included Kalen Ballage. Did he show enough quality during that time to earn a second contract?
Kalen Ballage during the Steelers 2021 preseason. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire.
Capsule Profile of Kalen Ballage Career with the Steelers
Kalen Ballage came to the Steelers as a former Miami Dolphins 4th round pick who’d bounced around to four teams in his first 3 years in the NFL. Ballage earned a spot in training camp at least in part due to an injury to Benny Snell.
Here’s where memory plays tricks.
Kalen Ballage seemed like the “next man” up after Harris, but the record shows he only had 12 carries and only saw 65 offensive snaps. That was good for 36 yards in 12 carries along with 2 catches on 7 targets. If the offensive line didn’t give him a of help, Ballage did little to help himself in spot duty.
The Case for the Steelers Resigning Kalen Ballage
Yeah. This is a tough one. The Steelers need depth behind Najee Harris and Ballage gives them a veteran presence. And he’s only fumbled twice in four years in the NFL. And you can get him dirt cheap. Plus he played 20% of special teams snaps.
The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Kalen Ballage
If you’re not convinced by the above you shouldn’t be. Kalen Ballage was a bargin-basement free agency signing for a reason. His limited sample size has been large enough and representative enough for the Steelers to see what they have in Ballage and that is: Not much.
Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Kalen Ballage
A key priority for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2022 off season is finding not only a number 2 but a number 3 running back to work behind Najee Harris.
It says here that, unless the Steelers stumble on the next Tom Brady with of their 6th round pick (ooh, wouldn’t that make the Melvin Ingram experience worth it), Pittsburgh will not field a Super Bowl team in 2022. But its still instructive to remember that the last time the Steelers won a Super Bowl, its running backs depth chart was four players deep.