PITTSBURGH — It’s no secret the Pittsburgh Steelers have lost any ability to run the football. And as it begins to affect their pass game, and their record, everyone is beginning to wonder why they aren’t trying to fix it.
In recent weeks, the Steelers have sunk to the bottom of the league in running the ball. Against the Washington Football Team, their 21 rushing yards averaged just 1.5 yards per carry, bringing their season average to 3.7 YPC.
So, what’s next? The Steelers get James Conner back from the Reserve/COVID-19 list after missing the last two games. His 645 yards through 10 games doesn’t scream “problem solved,” but it leaves the door open to regain momentum.
Maurkice Pouncey returning to the field helps as well. For the first time since Week 11, the Steelers will walk into a stadium with their starting offense intact and a pressing need to find success on the ground.
Leaving one barring question – where is Derek Watt?
The Steelers spent $9.75 million this offseason to sign a new fullback. Watt’s special teams efforts made him a priority for the team, but their main concern was having someone in the backfield who can block and stay healthy.
Last season, Rosie Nix spent most of the season dealing with injuries. The Pro Bowl fullback eventually found himself on the open market, replaced by someone the Steelers believed would provide more consistency in availability.
This season, Watt has missed four games with a hamstring injury. At the time, it was concerning not to have a fullback present on the sideline. But since Week 10, Watt has been available, he just hasn’t been used.
“It depends on the matchup of the week as it relates to the people that you are preparing for,” head coach Mike Tomlin said on the lack of implementing Watt into the offense, “so we’ll make those considerations this week as we prepare for Buffalo.”
Tomlin brushed off adding more Watt to the ground game.
“I’m less concerned about the personnel groups we choose to employ and more concerned about the results within those groups that we choose to employ,” he said.
And it makes no sense. The Steelers haven’t had a 100-yard rusher in seven weeks, have thrown the ball over 100 times in the last two weeks, and suffered their first loss of the season. If there were ever a time to switch up personnel groups in the run game, now would be it.
The Steelers kept Watt on the sideline when they failed to gain one yard on the goal-line in Week 13. They chose to throw the football inside the five-yard line without even attempting a run. And no one had any idea why the plan was to give up on adding an extra blocker in short-yardage situations.
“Derek [Watt] does a good job of being that fullback, but if push came to shove, I really think we could put him at the tight end position,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “We could put him at the halfback position. I feel confident that he could be in the game at the tailback position in blitz pick up. I feel like we could get him out in routes if we had to. He’s kind of that swiss army knife that can do a little bit of everything and do it all pretty well. He’s become a great asset to this team, both on special teams and on offense.”
That asset has played no more than 11 offensive snaps in a game this season.
A few weeks ago, that could be chalked up to lack of time spent with the team. No offseason and missing regular season time with injuries add up, and it was a valid excuse to slowly work Watt into the offense.
It’s Week 14, though. The Steelers are now fighting to keep the top spot in the AFC while becoming more vulnerable to their opponents.
No one wants to walk into the postseason as a one-dimensional team. The Steelers might not turn their running game into 150 yards per game, but they could turn it into a group that opposing defenses need to be concerned with.
“I know you guys have a lot of questions about the run game. Hopefully we will have answers with our performance,” Tomlin said. “But again, you can reference my earlier answers to all of those questions regarding the run and our inability to do it as of late.”
Tomlin and the Steelers aren’t a team to overlook flaws in their game. They’ve adjusted in the past. They’ve adjusted this season. But time and time again, they let the running game deteriorate. And it’s hitting a point where you’re starting to wonder why they signed a $10 million fullback to play special teams.