Steelers Want Run Game to Open Up Offense

Rudolph, Fichtner know explosive plays will come

Josh Rowntree
October 24, 2019 - 3:06 pm

Through six games, the Steelers are still searching for an offensive identity. 

Running back James Conner leads the team in receptions with 26. Top wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster is averaging 56.7 receiving yards per game. 

It’s no surprise that the offense has not been as explosive as Steelers fans may have become accustomed to. After all, the franchise, over the last two seasons, has lost the third-best running back in team history in Le’Veon Bell, the best wide receiver to wear a Steelers jersey in Antonio Brown, and now the franchise’s top passer in Ben Roethlisberger. 

Fixes to that don’t come overnight. And big plays aren’t just easy to come by. 

“I think we’re close,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. “They’ve come, they just haven’t come consistently enough. I don’t know that it’s by design. You’ve just got to take advantage of the opportunity when it presents itself.”

Filling in for Roethlisberger, Rudolph has had his big arm tamed. The bulk of his passes have been of the short variety. It may be time to let him loose. 

“We’ve got a great plan and we’ve had a great plan in the last few weeks,” Rudolph said. “You take what the defense gives you. I’m always an aggressive guy. I want to take the ball down the field, push thee ball down the field and take shots. 

“You’ve got to take what’s available. If that’s a check down or if that’s a ‘go ball,’ that’s what’s available. I’m going to be aggressive. Yes, we need to open the offense a little bit. We also don’t need to force the ball down the field that don’t need forced when there’s someone sitting right there.”

What can help, for now, is a steady dose of Conner and Pittsburgh’s other running backs, as was the case in last Sunday’s win over the Chargers. 

Pittsburgh ran the ball 36 times for 124 yards with Conner and rookie Benny Snell leading the way. Smith-Schuster, according to Fichtner, was so encouraged by the running game that he encouraged Fichtner to keep calling run plays. The Steelers will likely try to follow that recipe against the winless Dolphins Monday night. 

“It starts with the run game,” wide receiver Diontae Johnson said. “Jaylen Samuels and James Conner, they’ve been running the ball pretty well this season. And Benny (Snell), also. If we get that done, it opens up the passing game a lot.”

“They wanted to improve the run game, be more stout in the run game,” tight end Nick Vannett said of the offensive philosophy. “They want to get more 10-yard runs, more explosive runs. But once we handle what we want to get out of the run game, everything else will take care of itself.”

It has to. Opponents are going to begin to force Rudolph to throw the ball. 

“It’s hard to put up points and it’s hard to get explosive plays,” Rudolph said. “I think our offense is moving in the right direction. We have a lot of guys that are starting to really rally together and starting to gel after a lot of new pieces were put in this puzzle.”

That puzzle has been complicated by Pittsburgh’s health issues of the offensive side of the ball. While the offensive line has been generally free of injury, tight end Vance McDonald has missed time, wide receiver James Washington did not play in Los Angeles due to a shoulder injury. Samuels missed, as well. 

Add that to Rudolph’s concussion that kept him out last week, and Pittsburgh has been a walking wounded sort of group. Even still, Fichtner has to dial up some different looks. 

“I’m always hunting ways to get the ball in Juju’s hands,” he said. “You see ‘young 18’ (Johnson) coming on, (Washington) is coming back to us this week. It’s exciting.”

Now it’s time for the offense to be.

Hear more from Randy Fichtner below.