Mike Tomlin likes a clear masthead when looking at his backfield with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Running back by committee? No, that's not really his style. As he noted on a conference call on Thursday, he's "a featured-runner type guy by mentality."
"I think that when you have a featured runner, it gives him the opportunity to drop a stake in the ground and allows others to rally around him, and it gives him a set of core base run plays that he specializes in, and you find a rhythm that way," he said, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
This philosophy should mean great things for James Conner, who has started 22 games for the Steelers in the past two seasons and was named to the Pro Bowl in 2018. The Steelers do, however, have a rather large stable of backs heading into 2020 as Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Kerrith Whyte, Trey Edmonds, and fourth-rounder Anthony McFarland all make up the backfield along with Conner.
Tomlin did highlight that featured runners do need to be supplemented with players that can do similar things around him to create a more vibrant backfield along with creating insurance in the event the lead dog gets hurt. As that relates to Conner, injuries have played a big part in his still early career. He missed time during his breakout season in 2018 due to a lower leg injury and then 2019 was nearly a lost year for him despite suiting up in 10 contests. He suffered a knee injury early in the year and later suffered a shoulder injury that limited him for the remaining weeks of the regular season.
Prior to the NFL Draft, Steelers GM Kevin Colbert that the team will "have a healthy Jame Conner" to start the season, which should be looked at favorably for his prospects of returning to Pro Bowl form. If that's the case, Tomlin has indicated that he'll be the starting back when things get rolling.
"James is a featured guy and proven runner when healthy," Tomlin said. "We're excited about him getting back to health and displaying that in 2020."
2020 will be an intriguing year for Conner as he's entering the final year of his rookie deal. As we mentioned above, Pittsburgh does have plenty of backs on the roster, so if the injury bug continues to bite him next season, that may be enough for the Steelers to move on heading into 2021. One back that is currently laying in the weeds is Benny Snell, who played well in limited action as a rookie last season, rushing for 426 yards and two touchdowns on 3.9 yards a carry.
"Benny Snell is a guy that is capable of being a featured runner who plays with a physical style in a similar manner to James," added Tomlin. "He's capable of being a James-type of guy if James is unavailable."
Health is going to be a major storyline for Pittsburgh in 2020 as not only will they need Conner to rebound from an injury-plagued season in 2019 to contend in the AFC North, but the Steelers are also looking to get franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back from his season-ending elbow injury.