For the first time in a number of years, the Pittsburgh Steelers are threatening to use an honest-to-goodness running back platoon that is out of design rather than necessity. The last time that they had running backs meaningfully split carries was just before Le’Veon Bell, with Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, neither seemingly good enough to be the full-time starter, sharing the workload.
In 2019, the Steelers have two young running backs whom they saw start games and succeed. Those would be third-year James Conner, who was the primary starter and earned a Pro Bowl nod for his performance, and second-year Jaylen Samuels, who was at risk of not even making the team, but slowly built up his role over the course of the year to the point that he was the back they felt comfortable starting when Conner was injured.
The interesting dynamic between the two of them is that both are capable of running and catching, though Conner is more adapted to the former and Samuels to the latter. The team seems to believe that there is enough similarity, but also distinction, in their game that they could feasibly use both at the same time.
This is something that they toyed with very little in the preseason. If I recall correctly, I charted a total of something like three snaps in which two backs were on the field together, two of them being Conner and Samuels, with Samuels lined up as a receiver both times.
The last time the team dabbled with this two-back look was with Bell and DeAngelo Williams, but it was used very sparsely and without great statistical success. Bell was such a workhorse, though, that they didn’t even play Williams much.
Could the Conner and Samuels pairing actually be different? For one thing, Conner is less established than was Bell, and there may be some movement away from the workhorse mentality. For another, Samuels is a far more polished pass-catcher than was Williams, and that adds versatility to a two-back look, which is pretty important in making it function and able to counter defenses effectively.
Even under the best of circumstances, it’s hard to imagine the Steelers using two-back sets very frequently, even in a post-Antonio Brown offense. They may no longer have him, but they still have at least five or six wide receivers to play.
In fact, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that there will be more four-receiver looks than two-back looks this year, in spite of Samuels telling Jeremy Fowler, “I’m pretty sure it’s going to be something special put into the offense. They will have us start off in the backfield or I can start out wide or motion out”.