Carter’s Classroom: Return to smashmouth

Although James Conner had a very good season, the Steelers knew they needed a boost at running back to balance the offense and Benny Snell of Kentucky was the answer in the fourth round.

Bennie Snell, Jr. at Steelers rookie camp - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

When the Steelers finished 2018 with Ben Roethlisberger leading the NFL in passing attempts, completions and yards, he also led the NFL in interceptions while the team coped with the loss of All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell.

Although James Conner had a very good season, the Steelers knew they needed a boost at running back to balance the offense and Benny Snell of Kentucky was the answer in the fourth round. Here’s why that could mean big changes for the Steelers’ offense in the form of a return to an old-school Steelers’ style of finishing games:

I’ve written about why the Steelers need to balance their offense to help Roethlisberger and how that could be through the running back position, but I thought that would be through a faster running back in the draft, like Memphis’ Darrell Henderson or Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill, to counter Conner’s power running style.

Instead, the Steelers opted for Snell, another power running back who set records at Kentucky. Snell made his name by being the center of Kentucky’s offense which helped them compete in the SEC. His senior season was his best when he ran for 1,449 yards on 289 carries and 16 touchdowns. That helped Kentucky to its best season in years — a 10-3 record and a win in the Citrus Bowl against Penn State.

Snell had a career day in that bowl game with 144 yards and two touchdowns. Watching that game alone gives you a good sense of how he built his reputation. Watch how he turns this simple hole into a 32-yard run by breaking tackles and hurdling defenders at the second level:

Snell is never afraid of contact and runs through arm tackles. That style combines with his confident demeanor, one that Dale Lolley‘s feature on Snell showed last week. When Snell sees defenders coming, he lowers his shoulder and drives his feet through contact. He has several plays when he ran through arm tackles, including this touchdown against Georgia.

Watch how Snell torques his body when he hits the hole and drives through the linebacker for the score:

What Snell brings in power, he lacks in speed. He ran a 4.66 40-yard dash, a time that was 18th among running backs in his draft class. His 4.33 time in the shuttle ranked 10th and his 7.07 time in the 3-cone drill ranked sixth. That time in the 3-cone showed his agility in short spaces to change direction quickly.

Snell won’t win many foot races, but he will use solid footwork to sift through his gaps and find the best spot to attack. His biggest hill to climb in the NFL will most likely be how he processes defensive fronts and how quickly his vision adapts to the professional level. Plenty of his tape, however, shows that might not be too steep an obstacle.

Watch how he sees the safety coming from the second level and bounces this red-zone run to the outside instead of taking on the safety unnecessarily:

Snell had very decisive runs where he would show patience before using his power style. That is a good balance for a power runner so that he doesn’t end up like Trent Richardson and miss open holes in defenses. Watch how he waits for his line to seal the edge before he lowers the shoulder and dips around the corner for a good gain against Missouri:

One concern about Snell is how he might play behind lead blockers in an NFL-style offense, considering how often he ran out of pistol formations in Kentucky’s scheme. I’ve seen enough to suggest that won’t be a problem. One good example was against Georgia where he not only displayed patience, but used his linemen to eat up defenders at the second level.

Watch how he puts his hand on the back of his pulling tackle and allows him to take up multiple defenders before he accelerates to the second level:

Snell might not be the guy who carries the load by himself, but he’s a prospect who could make for a strong tandem with Conner. Having two reliable power backs along with Jaylen Samuels would make for a ground attack that can pound tired defenses in the fourth quarter.

Such an attack would allow Roethlisberger more freedom on audibles at the line of scrimmage and keep defenses on their toes for more than just a dangerous passing attack. The Steelers used to dominate teams with a strong ground game with players like Jerome Bettis, tiring down defenses while also protecting the football and running the clock.

Last season was the first time in franchise history the Steelers lost at home after gaining a lead of more than 14 points when they lost to the Chargers 33-30 in December. Maybe Snell can work with Conner to make sure that never happens again.