Steelers' run game still seeking balance and right mix of running backs

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PITTSBURGH -- With injuries forcing a rotating cast of offensive skill players, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has learned a valuable lesson this season.

Perfection isn’t always feasible.

“If I’ve grown in any way, [it's] in thinking, maybe you don’t have to be perfect,” he said. “Let’s play the back that’s in there. Let’s play the receiver that’s in there. That’s what we’ve learned this whole year. We play the quarterback that’s in there. Play ‘em. Let’s play.”

That approach has especially been true with the Steelers’ running backs this season.

This weekend against the New York Jets, the Steelers enter the first meeting with Le'Veon Bell and his new team since their acrimonious separation with a much different run game than the one Bell anchored for the better part of five seasons. After primarily utilizing some form of a featured back since Mike Tomlin’s arrival in 2007, the Steelers have more evenly divided the running back reps this season, mostly by necessity.

James Conner leads with 110 rushes for 432 yards, but Benny Snell Jr. isn’t far behind, with 83 carries for 321 yards, and Jaylen Samuels falls beyond that, with 63 carries for 168 yards. The Steelers have had six backs on the roster this season.

Each of the Steelers’ top three backs sustained an injury this season that caused them to miss significant time. The uncertainty about their status at times has made it difficult for the coaching staff to put together a game plan.

That all came to a head last week, when the Steelers dressed five running backs but ran the ball only 15 times for 51 yards in a 17-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills.

Conner ripped off a 15-yard run on the Steelers’ first play. He ran the ball four more times that half, gaining only 2 more yards. At halftime, the Steelers’ ratio of runs to throws was pretty even, with nine carries to 11 pass attempts. But in the second half, the Steelers got away from that plan. Conner carried the ball three more times, including one for 17 yards on the opening drive of the third quarter. He capped it off with an 11-yard catch-and-run touchdown two plays later.

The lack of rushing attempts was uncharacteristic of a team that leaned on the run game in its previous three wins.

Part of the problem, of course, was the Bills’ stifling defense. Also contributing to an unbalanced and ineffective run game was uncertainty about the status of Conner and Jaylen Samuels in the week leading up to the game. Samuels was coming off a groin injury suffered against the Arizona Cardinals, and Conner was aiming to play in his first game since Nov. 14 against the Browns.

Conner was a full participant every day, but Samuels missed Wednesday’s practice. He was a full go the rest of the week, but the coaches were unsure of his availability for Sunday.

“They didn’t know what I was going to do, my status,” Samuels said. “I knew I was good, but they didn’t know that. They had to do a lot of game planning, making personnel groups. So I know that’s hard. They’ve been dealing with that all year.”

Samuels wound up playing 29% of the offensive snaps, and Conner played 58%. Meanwhile, the players who took regular reps in practice barely saw the field. Rookie Kerrith Whyte played 10%, Snell played 3%, and Trey Edmunds played just 2%.

“When you have questionable availability, the work that you do during the week doesn’t necessarily reflect the distribution of labor in game,” coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. “James’ availability was questionable last week. Jalen’s availability was questionable last week, so it affected the way we divided the work up during the work week. It is important that we give the guys the work during the week that are going to get it in the game.”

This week, the running back picture is a bit clearer. Although he said his shoulder felt a little sore after he played Sunday, Conner hasn’t been listed on the team’s practice injury report this week. Neither has any of the other backs.

It’s a good week to have a healthy group, too. The Steelers are taking on a Jets defense ranked second in rushing yards allowed, at just 88.8 yards per game.

“It’s most definitely Jamal Adams,” Snell said of what makes the Jets' run defense strong. “He’s different. He’s very different. ... They’ve got a pretty good front as well. But Jamal is all around. He’s everywhere.”

With Conner’s health and availability no longer in question, the Steelers could abandon the committee approach against the Jets. As beneficial as having so much depth can be, it also makes it difficult for the running backs to get in a rhythm. Fichtner acknowledged as much on Thursday.

“You go in for a play, and then you’re running out, and then you’re going back in three plays later,” Fichtner said. “It’s not the kind of flow that you really want.

“I think it’s great as a group, but I can see where at times, if I’m a back, I want that ball, and I want to stay in there, and I want to be able to protect, and I can do the job. It’s not that they can’t. It’s just that you want to isolate some certain things that guys do better.”