For the first 12 games of the 2018 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers offense relied primarily on running back James Conner as the former third-round draft pick was responsible for roughly 75 percent of all run attempts up until that point in addition to playing roughly 80% of all offensive snaps. An ankle injury suffered by Conner during the team’s 12th game, however, resulted in then-rookie running back Jaylen Samuels needing to carry most of the running game load in the team’s next three contests and overall, he fared well in doing just that. And while Samuels’ running style is a bit different than that of Conner’s, the offensive line still managed to adjust just fine to the rookie running back.
Heading into the 2019 season, Conner is again expected to be the Steelers primary running back but we could see Samuels get mixed in some, along with the team’s newest running back, rookie Benny Snell Jr., the team’s fourth-round selection in this year’s draft, also potentiality seeing some playing time as the season wears on. With the Steelers 2019 running game looking like it might rely a little more on different running backs with somewhat different skill sets and running styles throughout the upcoming season than it has in the last several, veteran guard Ramon Foster was asked Tuesday if that’s something he and the rest of the offensive linemen look forward to blocking for this year.
“I do like it, because if you have two of the same, then teams can only prepare from one type of back,” Foster said, per audio on 93.7 The Fan. “I’m not opposed to our guys going out in the backfield, I’m not opposed to our guys having a different style. We have been around long enough to where we kind of adjusted to it, to be quite honest with you. And it’s actually kind of cool, it adds a little bit of a challenge to you because you see who’s in, you know what type of running style they are. When we got Conner, I was like, Conner’s going to hit it. And it’s kinda cool to see that dynamic like that.”
As Foster pointed out, Conner is more a power running back and one that hits the hole quickly. You really don’t see him dance behind the line of a scrimmage very much at all. Samuels, on the other hand, is more of a patient running back with a style more like the team’s former longtime starter, Le’Veon Bell.
“My running style, I describe it like, real patience”, Samuels told Missi Matthews of steelers.com late last season during a one-on-one interview. “Finding the holes, letting the blockers get out in front, making their blocks and just trying to make a read off their blocks and getting up north, making guys miss. So, I feel like my running style is very patient, and then bursting out of it”.
As for Snell’s running style, his is most similar to that of Conner’s as he generally likes to hit the hole fairly quick and then use his power to run over defenders on his way to picking up yards after contact. That said, Snell did show some patience running the football during his college career at Kentucky and especially on plays that he was used as the Wildcat quarterback. That bit of patience he displayed some at Kentucky aside, Snell primarily considers himself a bruiser back more than anything else.
“It’s hard-nosed football,” said Snell of his running style not long after he was drafted. “I am grinding for every yard. I am a physical player. My style of running is Steelers football. Pittsburgh football. That is what I am going to bring.”
The Steelers new running backs coach Eddie Faulkner pretty much agrees with Snell’s self assessment of his running style.
“He plays physical, plays hard, and quite honestly represents the Steelers brand, as you watch him play as a football player,” Faulkner said after Snell was drafted.
We’ll have to wait and see how things ultimately play out during the 2019 regular season when it comes to how the Steelers employ their running backs. Obviously, it would be great if Conner doesn’t ultimately have to log as much playing time as he did in 2018 through the first half of the season in an effort to keep him fresh and more importantly, fully healthy. Samuels showed late last season that his running style can also have success behind the Steelers offense line and he also showed he can be counted on to function out of the backfield as a pass catcher, something he did a lot of in college at North Carolina State. As for Snell, it’s easy to be excited about his future in Pittsburgh as a power runner as well.
Regardless of how the Steelers ultimately decide to use their running backs in 2019, Foster just wants each of them to be the kind of runner they know they are and thus not try to be something they’re not.
“And I don’t want one trying to be like the other, either,” Foster said Tuesday. “You know, run your style of football, which is kind of good for us.”