Can the Steelers rediscover their running game?

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The Pittsburgh Steelers made their bones and won their championships with defense and a running game. They still have the defense, but they currently don’t have their running game.

Pittsburgh had 21 rushing yards against Washington on Monday night, an average of 1.5 yards on 14 carries. Five days earlier against Baltimore, the Steelers had 68 rushing yards.

The simple answer is that the Steelers have missed running back James Conner, who missed the last two games on the COVID-19 reserve list. In a contract year, he’s proving his value in his absence.

Conner has 645 yards rushing in 10 games this season, with three games in excess of 100 and two others with more than 80. He’ll return on Sunday night in Buffalo, and the Steelers need him to perform.

They also need to commit to the running game.

“The only solution in fixing the running game is the commitment,” Steeler Hall of Famers Jerome Bettis recently told Ed Bouchette of TheAthletic.com. “You got to be committed to it because once you commit to it then the offensive linemen, they have a different attitude about it, the running backs look at it differently, just the whole offense changes. You can’t just fix the running game with Xs and Os. It doesn’t happen that way.

“The running game is a mentality, so if you’re going to be a physical running team, you have to commit to it, and that’s the problem the Steelers have, they didn’t commit to it coming out of training camp. And when you don’t commit to it then, you struggle when you have teams that have very dominant defensive lines because you can’t move people out of the way.”

Schematically, the Steelers initially committed to the run, incorporating the jet sweep, jet-sweep action, and pre-snap motion under the influence of quarterbacks coach Matt Canada. As explained by Mark Kaboly of TheAthletic.com, the Steelers used jet-sweep action on nearly 40 percent of their running plays during the first eight games of the 2020 season. That percentage over the last three games has fallen to 15.

“I definitely believe it’s a factor of shorter weeks, less practice time,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner recently said, via Kaboly. “I definitely believe that it can help us moving forward. I do believe — I think moving forward and we’re back on the kind of regular scheduling, we will get to practice three times this week — I do believe that we can kind of get back to more of what we want to be and how we’ve tried to be.”

Whatever they do, the Steelers need to do it soon. With upcoming games against the Bills, Colts, and Browns, the team’s first loss of the season can become two, three, maybe four. If the Browns keep winning and the Steelers stumble against Buffalo and Indianapolis, the Browns could end up flexed into prime time again, with a possible Week 17 Sunday night showdown with the Steelers for the AFC North crown.