There was a time in the NFL when it was commonplace for there to be more running backs on the field than wide receivers. It seems as though those days are long gone at this point. Many teams now don’t even have fullbacks, or true fullbacks anyway, and legitimate two-back sets are rather scarce. The Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t run any in years.
But they could be one of the teams to do it in 2019, if the first week of OTAs is any indication—and let’s be very clear here, it very frequently isn’t. It’s worth noting that both of the running back involved in the current two-back looks they’re running in practice, James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, said that this is something they had already been practicing last season. And both of the mare on board with it.
“Oh, man, Jaylen. He’s super talented”, Conner said. “It’s something we’ve had in for a little while, but I think we’re going to use it a little more this year, and I’m excited about it because we’re both really talented. So it kind of puts the defense in a mix of who they really want to pay attention to because he’s shown what he can do”.
When he says it’s something he thinks they’ll use a little more, he can only at best be referring to the preseason, because they never ran any true two-back sets last year, but they did so for three snaps in the preseason, with Conner being in the game for one of those snaps. Samuels lined up as a wide receiver on each of those three snaps.
But it wouldn’t be the first time they fiddled with something one year only to see it develop a year later. Most recently, they were toying with the idea of flipping T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree during the former’s rookie season. But they decided to hold off on actually doing it on a full-time basis until last year, at which point it became a fixture and seemingly permanent.
On a team that no longer has Antonio Brown and is short of a clear-cut, bona fide number two wide receiver, I don’t think it would exactly be a leap to believe the offense could experiment with incorporating some looks that feature both Conner and Samuels on the field at the same time.
Samuels, after all, spent more time in college catching the ball than he did running it. Many assumed when he was traded that he would be a tight end or h-back. So he clearly brings something to the table that can differentiate from the rest.
I think the biggest selling point for the idea of this actually happening, though, is the fact that both of them are in support of it. I don’t know that they was really true when they had Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams playing a bit together several years ago. Conner and Samuels also complement one another better than did Bell and Williams.