PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin stressed before the NFL draft that fixing the league’s worst rushing offense didn’t rely exclusively on bringing in an influx of talent.
And then Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert used the draft to do just that.
The Steelers used their first four picks on offensive players for the first time in 45 years — running back Najee Harris, tight end Pat Freiermuth, center Kendrick Green and tackle Dan Moore — each of them tasked with being part of a solution to a problem that contributed to a late swoon that sent the AFC North champions tumbling out of the playoffs in the opening round.
“I like the players, I like the talents, I like what the players bring,” Tomlin said Saturday evening. “(But) the acquisition of players is just a component of it. I feel better today about (the running game) than I did on Monday because they are quality players.”
Pittsburgh ran for just 1,351 yards in 2020 and averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, both of those numbers last in the league. The running back rotation never developed any sort of clarity or consistency and the offensive line struggled to get any sort of push.
Harris at least addresses the first part of the problem. A workhorse during his time at Alabama, the 23-year-old is very much in the mold of former Steeler Le’Veon Bell, who evolved into one of the best dual-threat backs in the league during his five-season run with the Steelers.
Save for the first half of 2018 when James Conner appeared on the cusp of being a solid replacement for Bell, the Steelers have been so-so at best. They attempted to compensate in 2020 by relying heavily on a short passing game that required quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to get rid of the ball quickly so players such as JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson could work in space.
Defenses eventually caught on and the Steelers ended up dropping five of their final six following an 11-0 start, averaging just 52 yards on the ground in the process.
That number figures to rise in 2021, though Harris will need some help in front of him. The Steelers believe they addressed it by grabbing Freiermuth in the second round, Green in the third and Moore with their first pick in the fourth.
Freiermuth is a bit of a throwback, a tight end who is comfortable serving as a sixth offensive lineman in the running game as well as lining up on the outside and taking on linebackers and safeties.
Green played guard at Illinois, though Pittsburgh views him more as a center and perhaps an eventual replacement for the recently retired Maurkice Pouncey. Moore began last season at left guard sliding outside to tackle, a move he said he made after just one practice. Regardless of where they play, first-year offensive line coach Adrian Klemm is impressed with their physicality and toughness, particularly Green’s.
“If you have that dog in you, that wolf in you, you are going to continue to do that in critical moments of the game. I love it when I find a guy that I don’t have to bring that out of,” Klemm said. “He’s just naturally like that, he carries himself that way, he plays with that nastiness at that position.”
Pittsburgh didn’t completely ignore depth concerns on the NFL’s third-ranked defense, taking inside linebacker Buddy Johnson from Texas A&M in the fourth round, defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk from Wisconsin in the fifth, edge rusher Quincy Roche from Miami in the sixth and cornerback/safety Tre Norwood from Oklahoma State in the seventh.
It’s unlikely any of them will be called on to make any sort of immediate impact, though it’s possible Johnson could work himself into the rotation quickly.
“We had several needs on defense, we got to them,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “We’re still in need at a couple positions here and there. We’ll see what happens.”
IN MASON THEY TRUST?
With four quarterbacks already on the roster, the Steelers did not take one with any of their eight picks. The team did, however, sign primary backup Mason Rudolph to a one-year extension through 2022, giving them at least some semblance of stability at the position with Roethlisberger’s future beyond this season uncertain and Josh Dobbs and Dwayne Haskins on one-year deals.
CAN HE KICK IT?
The Steelers used a draft pick on a punter for the first time since 2007 when they selected Pressley Harvin III from Georgia Tech in the seventh round. Harvin will face incumbent Jordan Berry during training camp. The Steelers actually cut Berry at the end of training camp last year before bringing him back when Dustin Colquitt didn’t work out. Berry kicked well last season, but apparently not well enough to assure himself a little job security.