I don’t know whether or not it merits the title of ‘exciting’, but it certainly appears at least that the Pittsburgh Steelers have set up before themselves an honest to goodness open competition for the back end of the depth chart at the running back position this year.
There are three primary candidates to assume the number three role at the position behind starter Le’Veon Bell and his backup, James Conner. Perhaps the foremost of those right now is veteran Stevan Ridley, who was brought in last year after Conner went down and took over the backup role.
The other two top candidates are Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jaylen Samuels. Toussaint, who has been around for years, began last season on the practice squad and finished it behind Ridley. Samuels is a rookie who has yet to show much as a fifth-round pick.
Not that Ridley doesn’t have anything that he needs to show himself. In fact, it was imperative that he be able to show the team this offseason that he has the ability to contribute in the passing game, which is something that he has never really done in his career. He responded by merely having more receiving yards than in any other single game of his career. Okay, except for the first preseason game of his rookie season.
Yet the first play on which he made an impact was of the more traditional variety. The Steelers were facing a third and one and turned to him to move the ground game across the first-down marker and move the chains. It was no easy assignment, either. He was hit three yards behind the line of scrimmage but slipped through the tackle attempt and pushed against two other defenders to clear the line for a new set of downs.
It was on the next play that his passing game contributions were highlighted. Well, two plays later. On second and 10, Joshua Dobbs checked the ball down to him under duress, and the back slipped past a defender for a 13-yard gain.
Later on the same drive during the two-minute drill, he added a 17-yard catch-and-run as Dobbs was again under pressure. Finding Ridley in the flat, he showed good upfield acceleration and active feet, but would have been advised to get out of bounds at the end of this play.
Into the third quarter, and back on the ground, the veteran back sidestepped a tackle attempt in the backfield before reading his blocks to push ahead for a seven-yard gain. His overall rushing numbers are not indicative of his actual skill, as a play like this shows.
Ridley would add one final catch later in the quarter, this one going for 15. On second and 13, on a designed screen, he got one lineman pulling out in front of him before encountering two defenders to handle on his own. He was able to run through the first while he dragged the second beyond the first-down marker.
It’s hard not to come away impressed by what Ridley was able to do on these plays. He clearly still has something left in his tank. But of course there are still three more preseason games and a number of practices to decide how everything falls.