For at least the immediate future, it appears as though the Pittsburgh Steelers won’t run a single running back of theirs until his proverbial wheels fall off. In fact, judging by what Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said earlier this week during an interview on 105 The X Radio, the Steelers might even use a running back by committee approach in 2019 consisting of James Conner, Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell Jr., who was drafted by the team in the fourth-round on Saturday out of Kentucky.
“In Benny Snell’s case, he’s a good football player that knows how to play the game,” Colbert said during his recent radio interview. “He played it at a high level at one of the best conferences in college football and he was successful. So, hopefully he can bring some of that to us because we need to have more help for James and Jaylen.”
Ever since Mike Tomlin became the Steelers head coach in 2007, only once has the franchise not had at least one Pittsburgh running back register at least 200 rushing attempts in a single-season. That lone season that they didn’t was in 2012. Additionally, in three of those previous 12 seasons the Steelers have had a running back register 300 or more carries during a single-season.
Remember Tomlin essentially running the wheels off former Steelers running back Willie Parker in 2007 after saying that was the plan? Parker logged 321 carries in Tomlin’s first season as the Steelers head coach. Those 321 carries also came the season after he logged 337 carries in 2006, the final year of Bill Cowher as the Steelers head coach.
Parker obviously hasn’t been the only Steelers running back to be a workhorse in Pittsburgh under Tomlin as Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams and even James Conner last season, all have had more than 200 carries in a single-season at least once. Four of the five seasons that Bell was with the Steelers he logged at least 244 carries in a single-season and he likely would have during the lone season that he didn’t in 2015 had he not suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 8.
With Bell leaving for greener pastures this offseason, the Steelers decided that they should draft another running back in Snell to help compliment their two carryovers from 2018, Conner and Samuels. On the heels of his comments about the team drafting the Kentucky product to provide more help for those two running backs, Colbert was asked if he believes the days of the NFL workhorse back are now fading.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t say it would be fading, if you were fortunate enough to have one,” Colbert said. “I was around one of those guys in Barry Sanders and if you don’t give them the ball you’re probably making a mistake. But those players are few and far between. That’s why the Hall of Famers. So, until someone proves that they can play at that level consistently, you better have good options available.
“And I hope that, again, Benny Snell can give us some more depth, some more variety. You know, he has a similar running style to James [Conner]. You know, James isn’t the biggest or fastest, but he gets what’s there and usually finds more. So, I think that will help our group collectively. But if you had a unique one, you wouldn’t be afraid of use them as much as you could, but those guys are few and far between.”
Last season, Conner, who was selected by the Steelers in the third-round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of Pittsburgh, was well on his way to potentially logging more than 250 carries during the 2018 season as he had 201 after through 12 games played. Conner, however, suffered a high ankle sprain during the team’s 12th games against the Los Angeles Chargers and that injury kept him sidelined until the regular season finale. Conner’s rookie season was also cut short by a knee injury so he’s yet to prove he can make it through a full season.
With Conner sidelined for three games late last season, the Steelers had no choice but to turn to Samuels, a rookie last season who the team had selected in the fifth-round of the draft out of North Carolina State, and veteran Steven Ridley. While Samuels did play above the line when given the opportunity to be the team’s primary ball carrier after Conner went down injured, Ridley’s play left a lot to be desired. Additionally, Ridley had a key fumble in the Steelers Week 15 road loss to the New Orleans Saints and that would be the last time he touched the football the remainder of the season.
Snell, as Colbert has already mentioned quite a few times since the Steelers drafted him on Saturday, is easy to compare to Conner when it comes to the two player’s running style and overall demeanor.
“He’s, again, I like to use the term natural with him, because he knows where the holes are,” Colbert said of Snell on Monday. “But his ability to find space in the second level once he got to the linebackers was pretty unique.he’s always going to get your four yards, minimum, and in the SEC that’s not an easy feat. But he also found extra yardage. He wasn’t going to run away from folks, he’s going to be a 4.6 runner.”
Colbert went on to add that Snell’s type of play in college also matched what the Steelers apparently were diligently looking for in all the players they selected this year.
“But what we really tried to emphasize this year, when we look back on our draft the year we took T.J. [Watt], JuJu [Smith-Schuster] and James Conner was they weren’t necessarily the fastest guys, they were good football players,” Colbert said.
How many carries will Snell ultimately get during his rookie season? It’s hard to say for sure at this point of the offseason but it sure sounds like he’ll get playing time at some point during the 2019 season along with Samuels and of course Conner. At this point, it will come as shock should the 2019 regular season end with any Steelers running back logging 200 or more carries and that might not ultimately be such a bad thing.
“I really think that depends on who that player is,” Colbert said during an interview with Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. “When we drafted Le’Veon, we certainly didn’t have that idea that he would be the featured guy. He forced that with his great play and he was that good, he was durable and he wanted to be on the field. James does too, but you also have to understand if you have two or three guys that can maybe get the same production then let’s make sure we’re covered and have the proper depth.”