Having a Pro Bowl fullback on the field could have helped the Pittsburgh Steelers overcome their short-yardage failures Sunday night in a 33-3 loss to the New England Patriots.
It won’t be a potential cure-all this weekend — and potentially beyond — if the Steelers find themselves in a similar situation against the Seattle Seahawks.
Fullback Roosevelt Nix, who didn’t play an offensive snap against the Patriots, likely won’t be available for the next few weeks because of a knee injury.
Coach Mike Tomlin added Nix to his injury report Tuesday at his weekly news conference. Tomlin said Nix “may miss this game and another or two.”
Tomlin said Nix was injured during the 30-point loss to the Patriots, presumably while playing on special teams given his absence on offense. Selected one of four team captains because of his role on special teams, Nix played 18 snaps on those units against New England, third-most among Steelers players.
Without Nix on the field to block for James Conner, the Steelers failed to convert a pair of third-and-1 running plays in the second quarter. Faced with another third-and-1 and a fourth-and-1 later in the game, the Steelers elected to pass and didn’t convert either opportunity.
“We failed miserably in that regards,” Tomlin said. “It was catastrophic to our efforts. It didn’t allow us to sustain drives. It didn’t allow us to possess the ball. It didn’t allow us to play a certain number of snaps. It didn’t allow us obviously to score points. Couple that with some drops, it made for some tough sledding.”
On the first short-yardage attempt, Conner was stopped for no gain on a run up the middle. On the second, he lost 4 yards on a pitch around left end. The Patriots used a 25-yard touchdown pass on the ensuing possession to take a 17-0 lead.
“No excuses in that regard,” Tomlin said when asked about the Steelers’ inability to run successfully without a fullback on the field.
Faced with a fourth-and-1 at the Patriots 47 at the two-minute warning, the Steelers sent out a jumbo package that involved tackle Zach Banner as a blocking tight end. But during the commercial break, the call was changed. Banner trotted off the field, and the Steelers went with five wide receivers. Donte Moncrief couldn’t hold onto Roethlisberger’s pass, and the Patriots got a late field goal from Stephen Gostkowski to build a 20-point cushion at halftime.
The Steelers settled for a field goal on their first drive of the second half when Roethlisberger and Moncrief couldn’t connect on a fade on third-and-1 from the 1.
“You can’t afford to lose 4-5 possessions when playing a group like that,” Tomlin said, “particularly in circumstances when you need to win the vast majority of the short-yardage situations.”
The running game struggled no matter the situation. Conner rushed for 21 yards on 10 attempts, and backup Jaylen Samuels gained 4 yards on two carries. A 5-yard run represented the long gain by a running back.
The Steelers used Nix at fullback on 16% of their offensive plays in 2017 when Le’Veon Bell was the tailback. Last year, Nix’s playing time was less than 10% with Conner as the primary runner.
If the Steelers wish to use a fullback to provide extra blocking for Conner or Samuels in their home opener against Seattle, they will turn to someone with no NFL experience at the position. Sutton Smith, an outside linebacker who took some reps at fullback in spring workouts, was cut at the end of the preseason and not re-signed to the practice squad.
“We have some candidates,” Tomlin said. “We spent some time as we always do looking at other options in areas where we don’t have a lot of depth. Fullback position is an area where we don’t have a lot of depth.
“We’re not opposed looking at other people. We’ve spent time looking at defenders in the spring and summer. We also are capable of looking at tight ends, which we’ve done in the past quite regularly.”
Tomlin brushed off questions about specific players filling the fullback role.
“We’re just at the beginning stages of discussing it,” he said. “If we need a fullback, there will be somebody representing that position on Sunday, I assure you of that.”