With Antonio Brown now gone, a lot of the focus around the Pittsburgh Steelers has been placed on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his wide receivers, for obvious reasons. After all, when you suffer a major loss in one area, what people want to know is how that void is going to be filled, and that tends to come from the same source.
That’s not necessarily so, according to Roethlisberger. Obviously tight end Vance McDonald is expected to play a bigger role than ever this season after setting career highs with 50 receptions for 610 yards and four touchdowns last year, but the quarterback was also really excited about the guys behind him.
After reporters were going on about the number of new or young wide receivers on the team, Roethlisberger shifted gears. “We’ve got a lot of great running backs who can not only run the ball well but catch it, so it’s gonna be fun if we can produce the way that we think we can”, he said.
All of the running backs on the roster are heading into their third season or earlier, including fourth-round rookie draft pick Benny Snell, Jr. Snell admittedly wasn’t much of a contributor in the passing game in college, but then nearly was the team’s starting running back.
That would be James Conner, who in his second season last year caught 55 passes (on only 71 targets) for 497 yards and a touchdown. For most of the year, he was averaging over 10 yards per reception, and he became adept at making tacklers miss in open space.
Then there was then-rookie Jaylen Samuels a fifth-round pick out of NC State who emerged as the season progressed for the Steelers. Starting the year behind Stevan Ridley, he started to get more opportunities on the other side of the bye week, and especially after Ridley’s first fumble.
Samuels was only targeted 29 times, but he caught 26 of those passes for 199 yards, and put three of them across the goal line. Between Conner and Samuels, they hauled in 81 passes for 696 yards and four touchdowns.
That is a strong season for a starting pass-catching running back, but there is reason to expect that both of them can and should better their own individual numbers from last season in the passing game. If they really are used as extensively as they can be, there is no reason they couldn’t top 1000 yards as a duo in the passing game.
That is largely why the team has been working with a two-back set that features Conner and Samuels on the field together. According to beat writers, in the majority of these instances, that look featured Samuels in the slot or aligned out wide. Remember, he had more receptions than carries in college.