Steelers will need to run to outgun Ravens


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Steelers running back James Conner (30) -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

The Steelers' coaches are huddled up at the Rooney Sports Complex sifting through the ashes of the 2019 season, assessing what went right, and perhaps more importantly, what went wrong.

After that, it will be time to turn the focus to the offseason and the team's No. 1 priority, beating the Ravens.

Why is that the priority?

The easiest path to the postseason is winning the division. And the Ravens have now won the AFC North two years in a row.

So, how do the Steelers go about beating the Ravens?

They need to look no farther than what happened to Baltimore last weekend in the AFC Divisional Playoffs for the blueprint.

Baltimore prides itself on being a bully. The Ravens' success this season was built on a rushing attack that could both run over you or around you. And once they built a lead, the Ravens would blitz the opposing team's offense off the field. They blitzed nearly 50 percent of the time on passing downs, by far the most in the league.

But what the Ravens don't do well is play from behind.

That was proven both by the Titans in their 28-12 win on Saturday, and during the regular season in back-to-back losses to Chiefs and Browns.

While the Chiefs had success running the ball -- gaining 140 yards on the ground, their third-best total of the season -- they relied more on the outstanding quarterback play of Patrick Mahomes to build a 30-13 lead.

But, not every team has Mahomes, the best quarterback in the NFL.

Instead, the Titans and Browns controlled the game against the Ravens by running the ball right down Baltimore's throat.

The Browns rushed for 193 yards in a 40-25 Week 4 win over the Ravens, with Nick Chubb carrying the ball 20 times for 165 yards and catching three passes for 88.

The Titans, meanwhile, rolled up 217 rushing yards, including 195 on 30 carries by Derrick Henry.

See the trend?

The Steelers have a defense capable of getting after Lamar Jackson. But they don't have a rushing attack to keep Jackson and company standing on the sidelines.

That's why when the Steelers' coaching staff is looking at ways to handle the Ravens, their means of doing do most undoubtably will land on beefing up their own running game.

James Conner is the team's best all-round back but he also played in just seven quarters in the final eight games of the 2019 season after missing three full games in 2018.

Backups Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell are both more role players than feature backs, though Snell did rush for 91 yards on 18 carries in the team's regular season finale loss in Baltimore.

What the Steelers could use, however, is a dynamic running back who can also stay healthy. And that player isn't currently on their roster.

That's why the Steelers should use one of their top two picks in this year's draft -- either the 49th pick in the second round, or the compensatory pick they receive at the end of the third round -- on an every-down running back.

Can they get that player in either round?

A look back at the past few drafts suggests they can.

The Eagles drafted Miles Sanders with the 53rd pick in this year's draft. He rushed for 818 yards and caught 50 passes for another 509 this season despite being a role player early in the season.

Chicago's David Montgomery, the 73rd pick this season, rushed for 889 yards and six scores, while catching 25 passes for another 185 yards and a score. And his rookie season was considered a disappointment. That rushing total was nearly twice that of the total of Conner in 2019.

Devin Singletary, taken one pick later by the Bills, wound up that team's leading rusher with 775 yards, while also catching 29 passes for 194 yards on a playoff team.

Chubb was taken in the second round in 2018, albeit with the 35th pick. But in 2017, the Bengals' Joe Mixon went 48th, while the Saints took Alvin Kamara with the 67th pick. Green Bay's Aaron Jones went in the fifth round, while Chris Carson of the Seahawks went in the seventh. Marlon Mack (4th round) and Kareem Hunt (third) also went in that draft.

All have had success, with most of them running behind lines far less talented than that of the Steelers.

And that's just from the past two seasons.

The idea is to make life easier on Ben Roethlisberger as he returns from elbow surgery. At 38, having Roethlisberger do all of the heavy lifting on offense just isn't a sound way to go.

The 90.4 yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry just won't get that done.

If the Steelers really want to knock off the Ravens in 2020, they need to beef up their running game. And the easiest way to do that is to make a commitment to the running back position.

As we see from the final four teams standing in these playoffs, the ability to run the ball is critical to success, no matter what the analytics people tell us. But even more so is having a quarterback capable of making passes from the pocket.

The Steelers will have that in Roethlisberger. But they need to find that running balance.

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