In spite of the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers have at their disposal a running back who plays more snaps per game than any other in the league, they have also become used to not having his services available to them during the offseason.
It’s not a coincidence that the team worked to shore up their depth, retaining Fitzgerald Toussaint and Stevan Ridley from last season and drafting Jaylen Samuels this year, as second-year running back James Conner continues to develop.
Ridley is the most veteran of the group, and arguably the least experienced in playing a highly prominent role in the passing game, but he has said that the team and running backs coach James Saxon has made that a point of emphasis for his players this year.
“That’s really been the focus this preseason”, Ridley told the team’s website. He said that Saxon tells his players during pre-practice stretches, if we’re playing running back at the pro level we know how to run the ball, so let’s focus on the other areas that we can strengthen our game.
Ridley spent his first four seasons with the New England Patriots, receiving significant playing time fairly often. He even has a 1000-yard season under his belt. But he has never been a prominent participant in the passing game.
His previous season-high for receiving yards in a single year was a whopping 62. He caught 10 passes that year in 2013, which was four more receptions than he had had in any other season of his career. To date, he has 27 receptions for 144 yards and no touchdowns.
On Thursday night, he caught three passes for 45 yards, including a 17-yard gain. He proved to be an efficient checkdown option during the game and showed some explosive qualities in doing so. One key play was during the two-minute drill at the end of the first half. He threw a chip block before flushing out as a release valve. Joshua Dobbs found him under pressure and he was able to turn upfield and escape a defender for a 13-yard gain on second and 10.
“That’s really been my focus, assignment sound on our blitz-pickups, catching the ball out of the backfield and then making something happen once the balls in our hands”, Ridley said of his work in the passing game. “I’m just trying to roll it over into the game.”
It will be important for him to continue to show improvement in the passing game, both as a receiving option and as a pass protector, if he hopes to make the 53-man roster in a loaded backfield that will be led by Le’Veon Bell. Conner is a lock to make the roster behind Bell, but the rest, including the number of running backs that will be carried, is really yet to be determined.