Today’s game will be the first meaningful one in the regular season since the beginning of Le’Veon Bell’s career that the Pittsburgh Steelers will have to go into the contest without either their featured runner or an accomplished backup.
After missing his first three games as a rookie in 2013, Bell started and played the next 29 over his first two seasons. By the year after that, DeAngelo Williams was in place to fill in during his suspensions and injuries. Last year, Bell was healthy all season, and it was only a meaningless finale that gave Stevan Ridley the opportunity to start.
Now this season, James Conner, their new featured runner, had been healthy up to this point. Conner was supposed to be their backup to Bell, but because he never showed, he obviously moved up a peg. Now rookie Jaylen Samuels and the veteran Ridley are his backups and will carry the load today.
It also figures to be an audition to get a more extended slice of the action going forward for the remainder of the season. Heading into today’s game, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner admitted during a Thursday interview with the media that in hindsight he would have liked to have gotten the other running backs more work.
They will have all game to showcase what they are capable of doing today, and if either of them stand out in doing so, they could get more opportunities for playing time in spelling Conner, at least for the remainder of the regular season, though the playoffs tend to offer a different environment wherein you are more likely to keep your best players on the field as much as possible.
In truth, this may have already started, as Samuels played 15 snaps last Sunday in the game prior to Conner suffering an ankle injury late. That is a good amount of work for a number two running back, all told. He was even given the snaps during the two-minute drive at the end of the first half.
This may actually be a bigger opportunity for Ridley, who has spent most of the past month and a half on the bench following a fumble several weeks ago. The Steelers have not given him many opportunities to get work on the field since then.
But he should get plenty of snaps today, and may even receive the lion’s share of the carries, favoring Samuels instead for the passing game. Ridley did run well when he started in the season finale a year ago, which is why they re-signed him this year.
And their audition may even be extended an extra week, as Conner’s status for the team’s next game at home against the New England Patriots is currently unknown. The Steelers immediately ruled him out for today’s game back on Tuesday, which is rarely a good sign for a quick return the week after that.