What to Expect from Pittsburgh Steelers' RB Trio in 2014

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What to Expect from Pittsburgh Steelers' RB Trio in 2014
Credit: Chris Gazze

Le’Veon Bell promises to be a major part of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense in 2014, but he will not be alone. A revamped backfield, which includes LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer, will play a key role in a ground game that has suffered in recent years.

The process to upgrade the running attack has been years in the making. Following the 2009 season, team president Art Rooney II stated that he wanted the Steelers to run the ball better.

"I think Mike and I certainly agreed coming off the season that we need to run the ball more consistently to get to where we want to get to," Rooney told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in January 2010. "So that's part of the thinking in the offseason: We need to figure out how to get better running the football."

"We have to get back to being able to run the football when we need to run the football, and being able to run more consistently than we have in the past season," Rooney said.

It may have taken nearly five years to accomplish, but the Steelers seemed to have finally found the answer to an upgraded ground game. The combination of Bell, Blount and Archer will form one of the most diverse backfields that the Steelers have had in recent memory.

This trio provides a balance of power, speed and versatility that will give offensive coordinator Todd Haley many options when designing his scheme for the upcoming season.

Regardless of how Haley divides the touches, the first goal of the backfield will be to run the football more effectively as they look to reverse a downward trend in recent years.

Pittsburgh Steelers' 2010-2013 Rushing Stats
Year Attempts Yards Average Touchdowns
2010 471 1,924 4.1 15
2011 434 1,903 4.4 13
2012 412 1,537 3.7 8
2013 394 1,383 3.5 9

Pro-Football-Reference.com

The Steelers’ 1,383 yards in 2013 tied for 27th in the league and represented their worst output since they rushed for 1,488 yards in 2003.

Do not expect this downward spiral to continue as Haley plans to have a more balanced approach this year, which will only make Pittsburgh’s offense more dangerous. The addition of Mike Munchak to the coaching staff will also help as the young and talented offensive line could finally reach its potential.

They will have the opportunity to block for several different styles, starting with Bell.

Bell is the most balanced of the running backs and will be the featured option in the offense. He showed last season that he can run inside with power, but he has a finesse aspect to his game and can get to the outside

However, Bell only averaged 3.5 yards per carry last season and lacked an explosive aspect to his game. That is why he dedicated himself to improving in that area this offseason. He told Mark Kaboly of TribLIve Radio that he lost weight and is down to about 225 pounds.

Mike Tomlin has already taken notice.

"Le'Veon Bell has had a great offseason," Tomlin said on NFL Total Access (h/t Dan Hanzus of NFL.com). "He's really shown that he is excited about taking the next step in terms of work that he's done thus far, particularly from a conditioning standpoint.”

Not only should this help him break long runs but Bell’s also added speed will help him in the passing game as well. He led all Steelers running backs with 45 receptions last season.

The 6’0” and 250-pound Blount will not have the explosiveness that Bell can bring, but his straight-line ability is the best on the roster. He will knock defenders out of the way, as his legs constantly churn as he breaks through the line.

Blount has averaged 5.0 yards per carry twice in his career and has only run for less than 750 yards once in his career. However, he is best when he gets at least 10 carries per game. Last season, Blount averaged over 4.0 yards per carry in seven of eight games in which he had at least 10 attempts compared to five of eight games when he had fewer than 10 rushes.

LeGarrette Blount 2013 Rushing Statistics
At Least 10 Attempts Fewer Than 10 Attempts
Attempts 110 43
Yards 567 205
Average 5.2 4.8
Touchdowns 5 2

Pro-Football-Reference.com

The Steelers will take advantage of Blount’s size and power in short-yardage situations as well. He is quick enough to hit the inside holes, and his power will help him gain yards after contact. That could make him a touchdown vulture this year when the Steelers are in the red zone.

That will not be the case for Archer. Unlike Bell and Blount, he is not a pure running back, as he will play both running back and receiver. That opens up the possibility for Archer to be on the field with one of the other running backs while out there.

Credit: Chris Gazze

When Archer touches the ball, the Steelers will look to take advantage of speed. At 5’8” and 173 pounds, he lacks the size to withstand the pounding of an every-down back. Instead, he will act as a specialized weapon that can be used all over the field.

With so many skill sets available to use, Tomlin will have to figure out how he wants to share the wealth.

"I'm excited about letting these guys sort themselves out from a division of labor standpoint," Tomlin said. "I know that they're all committed to being a significant component to what we do."

Hanzus predicted that it will be a “75/20/5 touch split for Bell, Blount and Archer in 2014.” In his “Making the Leap Series” for NFL.com, he predicted a huge season for Bell:

“Even with Blount getting his share, Bell will be a major centerpiece of Pittsburgh's offense in '14. We expect him to clear 300 touches. He could exceed that benchmark easily. A healthy Bell can clear 1,300 rushing yards, 70 receptions and 12 total touchdowns.”

Those numbers are very ambitious considering the depth that the Steelers have at running back.

Credit: Chris Gazze
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

In 13 games last season, Bell had 62 percent of Pittsburgh’s total carries, compared to 12 percent for both Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones. That number represented the highest percentage of carries for the Steelers top rusher over the past three seasons

Bell and Blount combined for an average of 28.4 attempts per game, which is well over the 24.4 that the Steelers averaged last season. Add an additional three or four rushes for Archer and that puts the Steelers over 30 carries per game.

Chris Gazze
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

That is just not a realistic number as they still plan to air the ball out with Ben Roethlisberger. However, an average of about 28 rushing attempts per game does seem reasonable. It falls right between their averages in 2010 and 2011—the last two years that they made a trip to the playoffs.

Based on this average, the Steelers will have approximately 448 carries this year. That is a significant increase over the 394 carries from last season. In theory, Bell would get a bulk of those extra carries, but that will not be the case with Blount in the lineup.

Instead, we need to examine the overall percentage of carries for Bell. His workload could fall below 60 percent to accommodate the presence of Blount. That would put him in the range of around 260 carries this year, which places him well below 20 carries per game.

Ideally, Bell would carry the ball 20 times per game, but it is not the number of carries that matters, rather what he does with them. His average of 3.5 yards per carry will surely see a jump. An improved offensive line and scheme should help him raise that value to at least 4.2 yards per carry.

Give Bell 260 carries at 4.2 yards per carry and he will easily eclipse 1,000 yards. In the unlikely event that he is a true workhorse and gets 300 carries, Bell could be looking at 1,200 to 1,300 yards on the season, which would not surprise Roethlisberger, via Mike Prisuta of WDVE.

Besides his rushing, you have to remember that Bell is a dangerous receiving weapon. Hanzus’ prediction of 70 receptions would represent a huge jump from the 45 he had last season. Roethlisberger will still look to Bell as a top target, but Archer will steal some of the running back receptions.

Rather than put up a huge number of receptions, Bell will average between three and four catches per game both as a primary and secondary option for Roethlisberger. The result will mean an additional 10 receptions in 2014 and will put him over 300 touches for the season.

Bell will achieve this as the feature back in the offense. With very good hands and the ability to block, expect him to stay on the field for third downs. He can line up next to Roethlisberger or line up as a receiver as he did as a rookie. His versatility was one of the main reasons why the Steelers took him in the second round last season.

However, Bell will not be a workhorse back with Blount right behind him. He will share carries with Blount and will sit out some short-yardage situations where the offense can take advantage of Blount’s power to move the chains.

To maximize Blount’s production, expect the coaching staff to continue with the running back rotation that they utilized last season. That means that Blount will get his shot every third series, regardless of how Bell is running the football. 

That may not be the best approach, but they did not sign Blount to ride the bench. He does his best work when he approaches double-digit carries, so the coaching staff will put him in position to succeed. One situation that they can take advantage of is his physical style is in the fourth quarter when they have a lead. Blount is an ideal option to wear down the defense and milk the clock.

Credit: Chris Gazze

But getting Blount at least 10 carries a game will be a challenge. Every time he touches the ball, Bell doesn’t, and the Steelers don’t want to leave Bell off the field too much. With that in mind, Blount will get his carries when the Steelers are playing with a lead and are not forced to pass the ball.

Any receptions by Blount will be rare, as he is not a great receiving option. He didn’t look good split out in training camp and dropped his only target. Plus, is Blount a better receiving option than any other player on offense?

At this point, you have probably figured out that the touches left over for Archer are very limited. This is one of the reasons why so many were frustrated when the Steelers selected him in the third round. Besides the return game, there will be no more than three or four offensive touches for Archer per game.

Archer’s best position is probably running back, but his lack of size will give him problems when running up the middle. Though his short stature makes him tough to find when running between the tackles, when he takes a hit, he goes down hard.

That may force the Steelers to run him outside where they can utilize his speed to hit the corner. As nice as this sounds, Archer has found out that defenders in the NFL are very fast. After a week of training camp, he has had some nice runs but nothing explosive.

Rather than traditional runs, Haley will have to get creative and put Archer in motion and use him on reverses. He could be more dangerous in the passing game where it will be easier to put him in space, but he is still learning the nuances of the position.

If nothing else, Archer will be a nice decoy to have on offense. Once he breaks a big play, defenses will keep a close eye on him. But he has to break that play first, so his performance in the preseason will be huge.

There are only so many touches to go around, and with such a variety of talent, Pittsburgh’s coaches will have to choose wisely. As tempting as it may be to put the ball in the hands of one of their two new running backs, neither would be the best option.

Bell has a chance to be one of the most production running backs in the entire NFL in 2014, but the only way for him to do that is for the Steelers to get the ball in his hands. Blount and Archer will have their spot in the offense, but the Steelers must remember who their workhorse needs to be.

 

Note: All photos used in this article were taken by me. Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of Pro Football Reference.com, and all roster information is courtesy of Steelers.com.  

 

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