Steelers

Five days to Latrobe: Back by committee? ☕️

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James Conner. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

No sooner had the Steelers used a fourth-round pick in this year's NFL Draft on Benny Snell than the question began to be asked: Will the team use more of a running-back-by-committee approach?

The answer to that question probably depends on how the term "committee" is defined.

With starter James Conner coming off a Pro Bowl year and second-year back Jaylen Samuels having shown some promise subbing for an injured Conner late last season, it could be difficult for Snell to find his way into any kind of rotation.

We'll see where that leads us when the Steelers report to training camp at Saint Vincent College next Thursday.

Snell is a talented runner. He rushed for 1,000 yards in all three of his seasons at Kentucky, including 1,449 yards and 17 scores as a junior in 2018. And he did so playing in the SEC against top-notch competition behind an offensive line that was, well, not as good as many of the defenders they faced.

But Conner is coming off a season in which he rushed for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns and caught 55 passes for another 497 yards, despite missing three games with an ankle injury.

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In three games subbing for Conner late in the season, Samuels rushed for 223 yards, including 142 in a win against the Patriots. But the Steelers see him as more of a third-down receiving back than a true runner. The 100-yard rushing game against the Patriots was the first of his career -- at any level -- while he caught 26 of the 29 passes thrown his way last season, proving himself to be a matchup problem.

The Steelers will try to figure out a way to incorporate all three into the offense. But a committee approach? That might not be in the cards.

"I'll have a similar role. I'm healthy, first and foremost; I'm 100 percent healthy now," Conner said recently on the NFL Network. "We'll cross that bridge when we get there. But we have talent in that room. We have Jaylen Samuels, who's a tremendous receiver, a talented runner. We have Benny Snell. We know the work that he did at Kentucky. He's a hard-bodied runner, so all those guys will get touches. It'll be fun this year just seeing those other guys being successful."

As I laid out earlier this offseason, Mike Tomlin isn't all that inclined to utilize other running backs as much when he's got a star runner. In Tomlin's previous 11 seasons, his starting running back has averaged 251 carries. The primary backup has averaged 85.

That means his lead runners have averaged nearly 75 percent of the rushing attempts, with everyone else getting the scraps. That split was even bigger when Le'Veon Bell was the team's lead runner. In the four seasons in which Bell played at least 12 games, he averaged 279 rushing attempts. His backups averaged 61.

But Bell was a different animal than most. He was his own short-yardage back. He was his own third-down back.

Two years ago, when Conner was a rookie, Bell had 261 carries. Conner got 32 carries before going on injured reserve with a knee injury.

Part of the reason for that was because Conner wasn't much of a blocker in pass protection, just as Samuels struggled in that regard in 2018. Snell is expected to be better than both were at the same stage of their careers, but the Steelers won't know for sure until their first padded practice at Saint Vincent when they run a backs on backers drill.

The drill pits a running back lined up 5 yards deep in the backfield working against a linebacker coming off the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball. The drill decidedly favors the defender.

But Tomlin isn't necessarily looking for his running backs to win the drill. He wants to see who is willing to at least try to be a blocker. Desire is a big part of the ability to be a blocker.

The Steelers also are one of the few teams in the league that has live tackling at training camp. They'll find out a lot about Snell in those first couple of weeks of camp.

"I will block, run, catch. Whatever they ask. I want to see the field as soon as possible," Snell said.

The Steelers could find some ways to utilize both Conner and Samuels on the field at the same time, putting Samuels in motion out of the backfield. But taking Conner off the field to run Snell? That might only happen if Conner gets hurt.

In that case, having depth is critical.

“That is how you win games, with depth,” said Conner. “If you look around the league, a lot of good teams have multiple running backs."

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