Confident Snell eager for backup RB role


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Benny Snell. – MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Steelers fans saw a flash of what Benny Snell can do ... on his first career carry in Week 2 against the Seahawks:

Not bad. That's Snell rumbling 23 yards on 3rd-and-1, making a defender miss, then polishing it all off with a little air guitar for the fans packed inside Heinz Field. It was pure Snell. That, as he would say, is Benny Snell Football — or so Steelers fans hope, because they're about to receive a heavier dose of No. 24 moving forward.

Playing behind both James Conner and Jaylen Samuels to this point in his rookie year, Snell's reps have been limited. He's registered just six carries for 30 yards and no receptions. Now, however, with Samuels nursing a knee injury that'll keep him out for a month, it's Snell's time to shine.

Bring that point up with Snell, and you can feel his energy level elevate. This is the moment he's wanted.

"I feel like I'm ready to roll. I'm very confident," Snell was telling me at his locker inside the Rooney Complex on Friday before the team traveled to Los Angeles for their Week 6 showdown against the Chargers. "Especially me running the plays and getting multiple reps, it's muscle memory now."

With those additional reps in practice leading to real, live reps this week at Dignity Health Sports Park, one would assume Snell feels additional pressure. He figures to provide an important element to this Steelers offense, and the spotlight will shine brighter than it has at any point in his young career. To Snell, though, it's all the same. It's football, and his preparation leaves him feeling comfortable as he slides up to No. 2 on the depth chart.

"I've been prepared ever since Day 1," Snell said. "I feel like I've come a long way learning the play calls, the details that come with the plays. I feel like this week is no different from any other week. I got a special teams role I gotta fill. My reps just pick up on offense. That's really it."

Helping Snell with that transition is Conner, who, like Snell, served primarily as a backup as a rookie. Playing behind Le'Veon Bell, Conner got to learn the Steelers offense and the duties expected of an NFL running back before eventually taking over last season during Bell's holdout. In 12 starts, Conner posted 973 rushing yards with 12 touchdowns alongside 497 yards and another touchdown in the passing game, earning a Pro Bowl nod in the process.

So he knows where Snell's at right now, and he's helping to push him to that next level.

"[He's] just learning every day, being asked to do things he maybe didn't have to do in college," Conner told reporters. "So, you know, it's a different game than college, but Benny's more than capable. He has a great resume. He's been practicing hard, so he'll be just fine ... I was a rookie before, so I know the growing pains in pass protection. I know being in the right spots for checkdowns and in the passing game. So if I see something that I notice, I'll go out there help him with that. And also if he has any questions, he knows he can come to me."

The aspects Conner pinpointed — pass protection and receiving — aren't on display in that highlight from Snell's first career carry above. They're not as flashy. But they're the little things that define good, solid running back play at this level. Think Snell knows it?

"James tells me a lot about the little things. A lot about the details," Snell told me when I asked what he was learning from Conner. "Getting chip-blocks on key players, getting to right spots on routes, how many yards it is. Just the little things. But they're big, and James teaches me a lot of [those] things on the field and off the field. So I feel like I've come a long way."

Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner certainly recognizes Snell's progress in those areas, and he shares Snell's enthusiasm for what's to come.

"Jaylen was just a unique individual. He will be missed, but I am really kind of excited for Benny [Snell]," Fichtner said after Thursday's practice at the Rooney Complex. "I’m excited for all of the new guys because you really just don’t know, and you may be looking at your new star. The truth is, he’s prepared and he’s got a job to do, and he’ll do it this week."

And if Snell produces another one of those 20-plus-yard scampers out in Los Angeles, you better believe some beaming smiles and air guitar will follow:

"It felt amazing. I like to have fun. I love football with everything I got, and me having fun while I'm out there, that's just a plus on it. So hopefully we get to see more."

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