National Football League

Running on Empty

December 8, 2020

Although they haven't officially clinched a playoff spot, and just lost a stunner to the Washington Football Team, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a virtual lock to not only make the playoffs and win the AFC North.

But why – after suffering just their first loss of the 2020 season in Week 13 – are the 11-1 Steelers raising so many eyebrows? 

A lot of it has to do with a bevy of pundits believing Pittsburgh's previously-unblemished record was a mirage.

*Cue Colin Cowherd after Monday's result*

Cowherd opened The Herd on Tuesday addressing the state of the Steelers, and the focus of his gaze fell primarily on the underwhelming Pittsburgh offense, namely the running game.

"They're just not dynamic. Look at them. They can't run. They don't want to make Big Ben throw 45, 55 times, [but] that's what they have to do. They're not doing what they want to do, they're doing what they have to do."

The Steelers mustered a paltry 21 rushing yards against WFT, as Anthony McFarland Jr. (four carries, 15 yards), Benny Snell Jr. (eight carries, five yards), and Jaylen Samuels (one carry, one yard) failed to get anything going on the ground.

Yes, the Steelers were missing lead running back James Conner, who's on the COVID-19/reserve list, but Conner wasn't exactly lighting the league on fire in Weeks 1-11. 

In 10 games played, Pittsburgh's top running back has rushed for fewer than 80 yards the same amount of times as he's gone over that plateau ⁠— five times.

As a team, the Steelers have 1,111 rushing yards. That's fewer yards as a whole than players like Derrick Henry (1,317) and Dalvin Cook (1,250) have individually.

Shannon Sharpe said on Tuesday's Undisputed the Steelers were living on "borrowed time" with the league's 29th-ranked rushing offense. 

"At some point in time, Skip, you've gotta run the football. You've gotta be able to line up in a formation, go two tight ends, get in your four-minute offense and run some time off the clock. They can't do that."

Given Pittsburgh's reluctance to run the ball, they're asking Ben Roethlisberger to do more.

His 484 pass attempts lead the NFL, and Roethlisberger's been tasked with slinging the rock more than 50 times per game in each of his last two outings.

While it's undeniable that the Steelers boast one of ⁠— if not the ⁠— league's top receiving corps, they'll need to help out Big Ben a bit more when it comes to hauling in the football, as ESPN's Greg McElroy pointed out.

"The reality is it doesn't matter how much you're throwing it or running it, if your receivers aren't catching it, it doesn't make a diffference. Right now, the Steelers lead the league in dropped passes. They have 31 drops."

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin seems to have a fix for the drops, however. 

Next up, Pittsburgh will have a chance to prove its mettle when it takes a trip to face red-hot Buffalo Bills team on Sunday, winners of five of their last six.

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