Late last week Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin answered questions from Steelers fans via the Steelers Nation Unite Huddle, discussing everything from the challenges of conducting a virtual minicamp to the health of Ben Roethlisberger and Stephon Tuitt, both of whom are recovering from serious injuries.
One topic that animated Tomlin was the competition at running back. Asked if he expects the running back position to be “by committee” he said:
“I’m a feature runner-type guy by mentality. I think that if you have a featured runner it gives [him] 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, Feature Back
Tomlin went on to discuss fourth-year RB James Conner, who is entering a pivotal contract year.
“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,” said Tomlin, making reference to Conner’s injury-challenged 2019 season, in which he rushed for only 474 yards and scored just 7 total touchdowns. This as compared to his 2018 season, when he rushed for 973 yards, added 497 yards via the pass and scored 13 touchdowns.
But even if Conner returns to form in 2020, Tomlin admits that other running backs will be needed to help carry the load.
“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,” said Tomlin, “but also supplemented by guys who are capable of doing different things to maybe challenge the defense in different ways….”
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Anthony McFarland & Co.
Enter a trio of running backs who will compete to play the role of James Conner’s primary backup: Second-year player Benny Snell Jr., third-year veteran Jaylen Samuels and rookie Anthony McFarland Jr., the latter drafted in the fourth round of the 2020 draft.
“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,” said Tomlin, who went on talk up McFarland, who, he said “brings a different component. 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,” Tomlin offered, before making mention of fullback Derek Watt, T.J. Watt’s brother, who signed a three-year contract in free agency. Watt won’t get many carries, but he figures to play a vital role as a blocker and on special teams.
In the end, though, Tomlin circled back to the importance of having a reliable feature back.
“We’re excited about what the group is going to do largely,” concluded Tomlin, “but usually when it’s doing well it’s because you have a lead dog out front and that guy is the featured runner.”