Jerome Bettis Offers Adjustment to Fix Steelers Running Game

Jerome Bettis

Getty Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis shared how he would try and fix the Steelers running game this season.

The Pittsburgh Steelers technically have a full back on the roster. It’s Connor Heyward, who the Steelers have listed as the No. 3 tight end and full back on their official depth chart.

However, if Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis were calling plays for the Steelers, he would probably move Heyward to full back on a regular basis.

Bettis, who has partnered with IBM to spotlight their latest technology in the ESPN fantasy app, shared his thoughts on the Steelers offense and the team’s struggling run game in an exclusive interview with Heavy.

Through five weeks, the Steelers are averaging 80.4 rushing yards per game, which is ranked 30th in the NFL.

To generate more rushing yards, Bettis proposed the Steelers returning to an offensive philosophy that was popular during his playing career.

“My focus would be to add a full back, play power football and force teams to commit that eighth guy in the box,” Bettis told Heavy when asked how he would fix the Steelers rushing attack. “Now, the landscape looks so much easier for my wide receivers.

“I’ve got two dynamic wide receivers and a really good tight end. I want to utilize that. So, I would shrink the field. I would go full back in, power football, play-action pass.”

According to Pro Football Focus, Heyward has played 11 snaps at full back this season.

Jerome Bettis Calls for Steelers Offense to Better Support QB Kenny Pickett

Most dynamic offenses in 2023 aren’t trying to shrink the field as Bettis suggested the Steelers do. Instead, modern NFL offenses are trying to make defenses believe they have to defend every part of the field.

The plan is for quarterback Kenny Pickett to forced defenses to do that one day. But until then, Bettis said the Steelers must find ways to help him through his development.

“The Bus” helped provide that support for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2004 and 2005. During Roethlisberger’s first two seasons, the Steelers were ranked in the top 5 in rushing yards.

In fact, during Bettis’ 10 seasons with the Steelers, the team finished in the top 10 in rushing seven times. They were first in rushing yards or attempts during four of those campaigns.

But the Steelers haven’t finished better than 11th in rushing since 2007. Bettis argued everyone can share the blame for Pittsburgh’s slow start on the ground this year.

“It’s a combination of the offensive line hasn’t been playing that great. From a running perspective, the guys are not all the way there,” Bettis told Heavy. “I’ve seen them miss some holes a couple times.

“It’s just one of those, they aren’t all together in terms of the running game, and they’ve got to get that on track.”

Pro Football Focus has the Steelers offensive line rated 22nd in run blocking this season. Running backs Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren have struggled too, according to PFF. PFF has both players ranked outside the top 50 running backs on the website’s rushing grades list.

Bettis ‘Big Fan’ of Both Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren

The statistics are rather ugly for the Steelers ground game. As Bettis explained, the eye test hasn’t been great at times for the Steelers running backs either.

But Pittsburgh’s No. 2 all-time rusher is still very encouraged by the skill the Steelers have in the backfield.

“It’s a really talented combination,” Bettis told Heavy. “You’ve got Najee Harris who is a bonafide No. 1 running back, and you’ve got Jaylen Warren who has proven that he deserves more opportunities.”

Harris and Warren haven’t combined for more than 114 rushing yards in a game this season. They also have yet to score a rushing touchdown.

But Bettis sees better things ahead for the duo after the bye week.

“They’ve got a great 1-2 punch, and I think it’s going to bode well for later in the season when a lot of teams are banged up,” Bettis said. “You’re going to have two really healthy running backs. Hopefully, they’ll be able to go out and continue to perform well.

“I’m excited to see what both of these guys are capable of because I’m big fans of both of them.”

The players need to be better. But a large responsibility for generating more rushing yards will fall on offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Bettis described that Canada is in “a no-win situation” where he never receives credit but always receives blame.

Bettis again identified support for Pickett as Canada’s main priority the rest of the season.

“The key for him, I think, is to make sure you keep your young quarterback in a position where he can diagnose everything and you give him plays that he can manage,” said Bettis.

“I think if we can support [Pickett] and let him develop in the correct way and not force all the pressure on him … If we don’t do that, I think he’s got a really good chance to be a special quarterback in the NFL,” he added.

How IBM is Helping Fantasy Football General Managers at ESPN

During his retirement, Bettis has begun playing fantasy football. Unsurprisingly, he enjoys watching the running backs around the league, looking for advantages for his fantasy lineup.

One way Bettis has found an edge is using new technology. ESPN and IBM co-created artificial intelligence models to study the latest data to help with the most difficult fantasy football decisions.

“ESPN and IBM came together in this fantasy football craze, if you will, and they are adding more and more advantages for the general manager,” Bettis told Heavy. “With the addition of the waiver wire insights and the trade analyzer, it really gives us an opportunity to look at things a little bit differently.

“They are crunching a ton of data, getting all the information, giving us the best perspective on how we should move forward with our teams.”

Bettis said the IBM tools at ESPN helped him claim Philadelphia Eagles‘ Kenneth Gainwell and New Orleans Saints‘ Tony Jones Jr. Both helped Bettis replaced injured New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley on his roster.

The IBM tools also assist with lineup decisions every week.

“We all have to go with our gut sometimes, but these give us a great indicator of what we’re looking at and what we need to think about. It’s great.”

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