When the Steelers released linebacker Sutton Smith a day after signing him to their practice squad in order to bring running back Darrin Hall back, it raised some eyebrows.
Why sign Smith only to release him the next day?
But when you've only got two healthy running backs on your entire roster -- both on the active roster and practice squad -- every available body counts.
For the past decade, the running back position has been devalued by the NFL, with just 15 being selected in the first round of the draft over that period. It sounds good in theory -- until you don't have one. The Steelers aren't in that position. They feel they have good running backs in starter James Conner and backups Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell.
The problem has been keeping those guys healthy.
Conner missed last week's win over the Colts with a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder, an injury that has him unlikely to play again Sunday when the Steelers (4-4) host the Rams (5-3) at Heinz Field.
And Snell also missed last week's game with a meniscus injury that required surgery. He is expected to be out several more weeks as he recovers.
That came on the heels of Samuels missing two games after having a meniscus surgery of his own. He returned for last week’s win over the Colts to share time with Trey Edmunds and Tony Brooks-James, both of whom were signed off the practice squad.
Playing musical chairs is one thing. Musical running backs? That’s something completely different.
“It’s funny because every week we keep talking about a different music and who it is,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. “I tip my hat to our guys because, every one of them, I don’t think pay too much attention to it. It’s not easy from a planning standpoint, because you work through a week and then all of a sudden, you get some of your guys back and realize there are going to be a limited number of reps.
"What we choose to do in a game, we have to put all of our guys in the best position they can be in, first. And then we have to make sure we at least got some reps at it, or at least a rep, so that they can do their job.”
Edmunds rushed for a team-high 73 yards on 12 carries against the Colts, but suffered a rib injury that leaves him questionable to play against the Rams.
That could mean the only available running backs the Steelers might have for the game would be Samuels and Brooks-James, who got his first career carry against the Colts, going for no gain.
“It was something I had dreamed about, getting my first NFL carry,” Brooks-James told me. “But, of course, I wish the result had been better.”
But getting unremarkable results from young or inexperienced running backs isn’t unexpected. After all, the Steelers have already had Snell and Brooks-James get their first career carry this season, while Edmunds hadn’t carried the ball in an NFL game since getting nine carries in one game for the Saints in his rookie season in 2016.
In fact, the Steelers have already had five different running backs carry the ball this season. It’s the first time since 2013 they have had at least five running backs carry the ball, their most since 2013. And they still have eight games remaining. They haven't had six different running backs carry the ball in a season in the past decade.
It's led to some disjointed runs, including Edmunds getting dropped for a 2-yard loss at the goal line in the first quarter when he failed to follow guard David DeCastro's pulling block around left end.
"If there’s any indecision, it’s based probably on youth," Fichtner said. "I say it about young quarterbacks and I say it about young running backs, when you’re close to the goal line, maybe you don’t get the proper depth. Maybe you want to hurry up and get across that goal line. You forget about your initial footwork, forget about the read. It’s, 'I’m going to get the ball and then I’m going to score my first touchdown.'
"Those things come into play. It’s not what you attempt to do, but I can see where a young, immature football player would do some things like that."
Thing is, you can't afford to do it too many times and stick around in the NFL.
"This is the NFL. Trust me, if he goes out there and (screws) up, he won’t be with the team on Monday," center Maurkice Pouncey said. "Trust me, he’s an NFL running back. They thought he was capable of coming in here and do the job. They’re not just pulling guys in from Giant Eagle. Give them a little bit more respect than that. You’ve got to say the front office is doing their due diligence. They’re not just saying, ‘Hey buddy, you want to run this week?’"
That might not be happening, but with the run of injuries the Steelers have had at the position, it's not far off.
Brooks-James was in camp with the Falcons before being released at the end of training camp after rushing for 180 yards on 25 carries. But Hall has bounced from the Packers to the Browns to the Bengals.
With Conner, Snell and Edmunds hurting, he could find himself signed to the active roster on Saturday, though the Steelers don't seem overly concerned about who is running the ball.
"We don't even think about it. We didn’t think about it when Trey was in there last week or with the young guy (Brooks-James) stepping in this week," Pouncey said. "Those guys get coached really well. They come in and watch the run tape with us after every practice. How we see things and how their coach is coaching things. I’ve been around so long and I know it sounds simple, but it really is next man up."
It appears the Steelers could be without Conner, Snell and Edmunds Sunday, as none have really practiced throughout the week, though the Steelers have listed Conner as a limited participant.
That would leave the team painfully thin again at the position.
But this is a non-conference game, meaning it doesn't carry as much weight as an AFC game would, so the team could err on the side of caution and give Conner some additional rest, especially given the Steelers have a quick turnaround next week, playing the Browns on Thursday night.
Getting Conner back for that game will be much more important. Friday will be the big day. If Conner is able to get through a full practice, he could be back. If not, you could see Hall activated on Saturday to serve as the third running back.
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