Art Rooney ‘feels good’ about Steelers running backs heading into 2019
For the second year in a row, the Pittsburgh Steelers are facing the prospect of playing a season without one of their star playmakers.
While it’s too early to know what life will be like without wide receiver Antonio Brown in 2019, team president Art Rooney II liked the way the Steelers overcame the absence of running back Le’Veon Bell last season.
With Bell sitting out the season while refusing to sign his franchise-tag tender, the Steelers turned to second-year running back James Conner and, later in the year, rookie fifth-round draft pick Jaylen Samuels.
Conner rushed for 973 yards despite missing three games to injury. Samuels added 256 yards rushing and, like Conner and Bell before him, showed he is capable catching a pass out of the backfield.
The young duo didn’t help the Steelers return to the playoffs, but they did enough to catch the attention of the highest-ranking member of the organization.
“The running back position I feel good about,” Rooney II said earlier this week. “It looks like we have two good, young players at that position at this point, so I feel like we’re in pretty good shape there.”
Conner was rewarded with a Pro Bowl selection after his first NFL season as a starter, a year in which he was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month for October while setting several franchise records.
Conner became the first player in franchise history with 1,000 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns in the first eight games of a season. He also had three consecutive games of at least 100 yards rushing and two touchdowns, becoming the first player in Steelers annals (and first in the NFL since 2009) to accomplish that feat.
Despite missing three games, Conner finished third in the league with 12 rushing touchdowns, fifth with five 100-yard rushing games, 10th in scrimmage yards and 11th in rushing yards.
Looking ahead to 2019, the Steelers figure to add depth at the position once free agency starts March 13. Or they could use a later-round draft pick to find another runner, much like they did last year when they drafted Samuels.
Veteran Stevan Ridley is a free agent and had a costly fumble that contributed to the loss in New Orleans on the penultimate week of the season. He is not expected to be brought back.
Rooney also didn’t rule out trying to bring back Bell, who will become a free agent again in March. After two years of using the franchise tag, the Steelers may elect to use the less-costly transition tag on Bell, who would be free to negotiate a contract with any team. The Steelers could match the offer — or threaten to match it in an attempt to get compensation in a trade.
“We’re not closing any doors at this point,” Rooney said. “We don’t have to close any doors right now, and so there’s no reason to say something is completely off the table.”
When Bell decided against signing his franchise-tag tender and continued his absence beyond the mid-November deadline to return to the Steelers, it raised questions about whether the organization handled his situation correctly.
Bell, after all, made a veiled threat to sit out the season last January. Nobody at the time actually believed he would do it.
Rooney doesn’t think the Steelers could have handled the situation any differently.
“If you know a guy is going to hold out an entire season, how do you know that?” Rooney said. “How often does that happen in the history of the National Football League? So, to sit here and say you should’ve known, I don’t know.
“I didn’t expect it, so I’m guilty of not expecting that to happen. What can I say?”
What Rooney wouldn’t say was that he wants the Steelers to run the ball more frequently in 2019. The Steelers had the second-fewest rushing attempts in the NFL last season when they passed the ball more than 67 percent of all offensive plays. That led to Ben Roethlisberger leading the NFL in passing, although he also threw more interceptions than any other quarterback.
“I think that I’d like to see us be a little more balanced than what we were, although the truth of the matter is we were pretty successful passing,” Rooney said. “It’s hard to say it was a problem, but I do think being a little more balanced would be helpful.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .