Every Steelers training camp you can hear Mike Tomlin have a different focus for each position group he visits at camp. Sometimes he’s telling his secondary to communicate better, others he’s telling his linebackers to wrap the ball carrier.
But for the running backs last season, Tomlin specifically focused on getting James Conner ready as a pass protector for Ben Roethlisberger. He pitted Conner in backs on backers drills repetitively to challenge the second year player and get him ready to protect Roethlisberger during Le’Veon Bell‘s absence.
That worked as Conner was reliable in the backfield, but the new problem Tomlin will focus on for the running backs will be the biggest problem the group had last season: protecting the football.
Fumbling is generally a concern that all coaches address and you’ll hear Tomlin get on his players for ball security in practice. But it’s never been a huge focus as football has way too many factors to put a hyper focus of every single one.
That ends on ball security this season. Conner, Jaylen Samuels and Stevan Ridley, the Steelers’ running backs, fumbled seven times last season. Bell fumbled eight times over a span of five seasons.
Looking at it from a fumble by touch standpoint makes it even worse. In 2018 the three backs had 384 touches making their seven fumbles a 1.8 percent of those touches. Bell on the other hand had a 0.5 percent chance of fumbling, a protection that was an often overlooked benefit to the Steelers’ offense.
That’s why I see Tomlin making a huge emphasis on ball security during this training camp. Not only were the fumbles more frequent from his running backs, but they came in crucial times that played a part in the Steelers tying the Browns, losing to the Broncos and the Saints.
In two of Conner’s four fumbles you can see where the fumbles happen and the factors that play into them. Here’s his fumble against the Browns when Myles Garrett beat Alejandro Villanueva and punched the ball out. Notice how Conner sees Garrett, but opts to stiff arm the huge defensive end and just as he tries to breakaway the ball gets a little away from his body, and Garrett causes the fumble:
Protecting the football seems so basic and a generic factor of football. But when you’re being chased by NFL-caliber defenders you can quickly lose focus on protecting the ball while trying to do too much to break tackles or shake defenders out of their shoes.
Conner’s fumble against the Broncos had a similar situation. Watch how he does a good job to cut on Brandon Roby and force him to go for broke on a low dive. But to make Roby’s dive miss, Conner leaps and the ball comes a little far out of his body and the hit forces the fumble:
The general rule on leaving your feet to beat defenders is, unless you’re a supreme talent, don’t do it. Few players can pull that off and the risk of fumbling becomes much higher.
Dale Lolley made an astute observation during the weekend when he wrote on how the Steelers won’t be using a running back by committee situation. Though Samuels and Bennie Snell Jr. won’t get a ton of carries, they all will be included on that increased focus of ball security.
I expect Tomlin to be on his running backs even harder than normal about protecting the football during training camp. That effort may be at the expense of his backs making more aggressive moves in space or in the hole to get extra yards, but that may eventually lift if they accomplish the goal of limiting fumbles after the first several weeks in the season.
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July 18: Tomlin’s challenge woes, Part 4
July 17: Tomlin’s challenge woes, Part 3
July 16: Tomlin’s challenge woes, Part 2
July 15: Tomlin’s challenge woes, Part 1