Steelers' rebound starts with Ben Roethlisberger, but don't overlook James Conner

Clark shocked by Tannenbaum's take on Big Ben (2:10)

Ryan Clark is shocked to hear Mike Tannenbaum say that Ben Roethlisberger is possibly not as skilled as Joe Burrow and Baker Mayfield. (2:10)

PITTSBURGH -- If quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's health is the No. 1 determining factor in the Pittsburgh Steelers having a better offense in 2020, then running back James Conner's is 1A.

Together, the pair can take the run game from an ineffective, bottom-of-the-league unit to one component of a dynamic offense.

"We know that there needs to be an improvement," Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner said. "We have worked on it. Ben's presence opens up the run game. I also think the run game can help Ben with some things."

Last year's average of 90 rushing yards per game wasn't the lowest of the Roethlisberger-era Steelers, but it was far below the average of 114 rushing yards per game maintained from 2004 to 2018.

Roethlisberger's Week 2 elbow injury made the Steelers a one-dimensional offense. Opponents didn't respect the throwing threat of either Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges, and they instead loaded the box to stop the run game.

A clogged ground game coupled with a series of acute injuries that kept Conner out of six games resulted in the Steelers averaging just 3.66 yards per carry.

"You can't have a good running game without a good passing game, without an honest, balanced offense," right guard David DeCastro said. "If they can just stack the box and run a safety down and you can't throw over the top or you can't keep them honest, then it is easier to stop the run."

Part of rediscovering offensive balance is having a fully healthy Roethlisberger and Conner.

But it's also hard to hang a season's hopes on the shoulders of a 38-year-old quarterback with a surgically repaired elbow and a running back who hasn't played in 16 games during his three years in the league.

Conner, though, isn't listening to the outside critics.

"Honestly, as long as the people who make the important decisions believe in me, that's all that matters," he said Wednesday. "I really don't care what anyone else thinks. The ones who make all the important decisions, they believe in me. I believe in myself. I'll leave it at that."

And the Steelers proved it by passing on a handful of promising running backs when they made their first selection in the second round of the NFL draft and not bringing in a top-tier back during free agency. And while Conner is tabbed as an every-down featured back, the room has others -- such as rookie Anthony McFarland and second-year back Benny Snell -- to supplement his hard-nosed style.

"I feel like there are a lot of options in there," Faulkner said of the running backs. "You have experience, for one. Not only at playing running back but also in special teams. Guys who have been producing. You have a Pro Bowl type of running back as a starter that, when healthy, is as good as any in the league. You have a bunch of guys with skill sets that fit what we look for, whether that is Jaylen Samuels and his versatility. Whether that is Anthony McFarland and his change of direction and burst along with Kerrith Whyte being that similar type of back."

But when it comes to specific fixes to improve on last season's performance within the unit, Faulkner was coy.

"Well, I can't divulge all of that information," the coach said with a little laugh. "But I will say there have been conversations on just things that we can do better and how we can do it better and how we can get in better sets formationally. Different ways we can run plays and create plays by motioning guys to a certain spot."

Translation: The Steelers are up to something.

But what? The answer might come from outside the running backs' room.

Hired as the Steelers' quarterbacks coach in the offseason, Matt Canada was once a hot commodity as a college offensive mind known for his creativity and misdirection.

Faulkner is plenty familiar with Canada after the two worked together at North Carolina State. The pair coached Samuels during his college career in Raleigh, and he flourished as a versatile chess piece, moving from running back to tight end to full back to wide receiver in Canada's offense.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has long been adamant that he doesn't care where a good idea comes from, so it's reasonable to assume Pittsburgh has tapped Canada for ideas in every facet of the offense.

Once the epitome of a gunslinger at quarterback, Roethlisberger already conceded he might not be able to rely on the same formula that helped his team to two Super Bowls.

"We have to do whatever we have to do to win football games," Roethlisberger said. "That's kind of the most important thing. It's throwing the ball if we have to; it's run the ball if we have to; it's misdirection. We brought coach Canada in to help with some of that stuff. ...

"Obviously, as a quarterback you know, you want to throw the ball. It's just natural, but at this point in my career, especially with the group we have, it really can't be about anything other than winning football games and doing that however we have to."