Thu. Feb 22nd, 2024

Arthur Smith, fired after three seasons as the Falcons’ head coach, has a fresh start as the Steelers’ new offensive coordinator.

What does that mean for Pittsburgh? After the Steelers struggled to move the ball consistently with two different coordinators in 2022, it’s a chance to perhaps get back to an above-average run game for the first time in years.

Smith, 41, has shown a commitment to the run game, both in three years in Atlanta and in two years before that as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator. Thanks to Derrick Henry, the Titans ranked in the top three in the league in rushing in 2019 and 2020, finishing fourth in scoring offense in 2020 and second in rushing, total and red-zone offense.

His Falcons ran the ball plenty as well — an NFL-high 559 carries in 2022, third-most with 522 this past season — but it wasn’t enough to avoid a third straight 7-10 season that ultimately led to Smith’s firing. 

For a team known for bruising running backs, including Hall of Famers Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis, the Steelers haven’t ranked in the top half of the league in yards per carry since 2016. They were dead last as recently as 2020, the same year Smith and the Titans ranked second. But Pittsburgh has a young 1-2 punch in Najee Harris (three straight 1,000-yard seasons) and Jaylen Warren, who averaged 5.3 yards per carry as one of the league’s best No. 2 backs.

Atlanta and Pittsburgh weren’t that different in 2023, two teams with talented rosters and underwhelming production from their quarterbacks. The Steelers were 7-7 and won their last three games to make the playoffs, while the Falcons were 6-6 and lost four of their last five to miss out. Pittsburgh, which ranked 28th in scoring, believes it has found its answer in Smith, whose Falcons ranked 26th.

Smith’s time in Atlanta featured consistent criticism for not using the Falcons’ biggest playmakers on offense enough, after using top-10 draft picks in three straight years on tight end Kyle Pitts, receiver Drake London and running back Bijan Robinson. 

Pittsburgh, too, has young offensive talent. Harris and Warren are still on their rookie contracts, and George Pickens, still only 22, had flashes of stardom in 2023, leading the NFL at 18.1 yards per catch and finishing with 1,140 receiving yards in his second NFL season. Tight end Pat Freiermuth, 25, had seven touchdown catches as a rookie but has totaled only four in two seasons since.

The Steelers have much the same question Atlanta had a year ago: They’ll surely upgrade at quarterback, right? The Falcons committed to unheralded Desmond Ridder, and they finished with as many interceptions (17) as touchdown passes (17). The Steelers must decide what they can do to improve upon 2022 first-round pick Kenny Pickett, who has just 13 touchdowns in 24 career starts.

https://statics.foxsports.com/static/orion/player-embed.html?id=fmc-epbsm7wnwqzpjruv&image=https://static-media.fox.com/fmc/prod/sports/VX-8092238/dskj0a9mxf3yk7ak.jpg&props=eyJwYWdlX25hbWUiOiJmc2NvbTpzdG9yaWVzOm5mbDpXaGF0IHdpbGwgZXgtRmFsY29ucyBjb2FjaCBBcnRodXIgU21pdGggYnJpbmcgdG8gU3RlZWxlcnMgYXMgb2ZmZW5zaXZlIGNvb3JkaW5hdG9yPyIsInBhZ2VfY29udGVudF9kaXN0cmlidXRvciI6ImFtcCIsInBhZ2VfdHlwZSI6InN0b3JpZXM6YXJ0aWNsZXMifQ==
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Should Chicago take a quarterback with the No. 1 overall draft pick in April, it’s possible that Smith’s new team and his old team will be in competition to acquire Bears quarterback Justin Fields, whose dual-threat qualities would seem well-suited to Smith’s run-first offense. As a veteran alternative, it’s possible that Smith could be reunited with Ryan Tannehill, who is 35 and a free agent but had his best seasons under Smith, throwing for 55 touchdowns against 13 interceptions in 2019-20.

Whether Smith brings back his mustache for 2024, whether he continues to write off his critics as angry fantasy football owners, there will definitely be drama for at least one week this fall: The Steelers’ schedule includes a game in Atlanta.

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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