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Monson: The Pittsburgh Steelers poor draft signals they are headed toward a rebuild

Dec 13, 2020; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) look on prior to the game against the Buffalo Bills at Bills Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers needed a good 2021 NFL Draft to put themselves back in contention, particularly in an ascending AFC North division, but they instead whiffed on a draft class that is unlikely to fix the root cause behind a late-season collapse in 2020.

Obviously, drafting a running back in the first round is never going to get a PFF seal of approval, but it’s worth remembering why. 

Pittsburgh once had arguably the best offensive line in the NFL, but the unit's elite players have fallen off and no high-end replacements have emerged. Consequently, the offense has deteriorated across the board. We have frequently discussed why running backs aren’t the way to fix all ills, but it effectively boils down to rushing production being far more a product of other things than it is the talent differentiation between one running back and another. 

The offense's overall run-blocking level, the number of defenders in the box and the passing game's potency are all more important indicators of rushing success than the name of who receives the handoff.

This often gets represented as “running backs aren’t good enough to move the needle,” but the truth is closer to “almost all NFL running backs are good,” and the differentiation between good and elite is small.

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Najee Harris is a great running back with a complete skill set that provides him the potential to play all three downs, but if the run blocking in front of him can’t consistently open holes, he won’t be able to singlehandedly offset that disadvantage. Furthermore, the offense embracing some modern passing concepts and actually using play action at a league-average level would do more for the running game than the jump from James Conner to Harris.

Nobody runs less play action than the Steelers, reportedly because Ben Roethlisberger hates playing under center and taking his eyes off the defense to run a fake. Last season, Pittsburgh ran play action on just 10.3% of the time. The next lowest team was almost double that rate (17.8%), and the league average was 2.5 times higher (25.8%). 

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