So far through the first three games of the 2019 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have largely been a one-back team with James Conner. While second-year Jaylen Samuels and rookie Benny Snell have, of course, gotten some snaps, and even some opportunities, they are only averaging a little over three touches a game combined between them.
All three running backs, as well as a couple of other teammates and coaches, had talked in the offseason about the potential for a meaningful rotation and division of labor at the running back positions this season between all three, even the rookie, but that had quite obviously been yet to materialize to date.
Mike Tomlin was asked if this was by design of if they are still working with the intention of incorporating more variety in the backfield. ”We are”, he said, noting that “we utilized all three in San Fran”. Admittedly, though, he had a good explanation for why we haven’t seen that yet.
“Things of that nature, the utilization of people, really occurs when you’re converting third downs”, he said. “When you’re 0-for-4 or 0-for-5 in your first four or five possessions relative to third downs, you don’t get an opportunity to establish rhythm in any area of play, whether it’s a division of labor, the utilization of multiple people, or the establishment of the run game”.
The Steelers have only converted on third down three times per game this season, finding success on just over a quarter of their opportunities to create new sets of downs for themselves. The result of this has been an average drive length of just 2:09, which ranks 29th in the league.
The lack of variability in the backfield, and elsewhere on offense, is directly affected by the Steelers’ inability to sustain drives, which naturally allows for that incorporation of a variety of personnel, whether that is on a rotational or situational basis.
“I acknowledge that we have intentions in that regard”, Tomlin said with respect to a desire to get work for all three running backs, “but none of that stuff is really going to come to fruition until we’re moving the ball a little bit more fluidly, particularly on possession downs”.
In other words, stay tuned. If the Steelers can actually get the offense going and start to sustain some drives, then we will start to see more specialization of assignments between Conner, Samuels, and Snell, which should only be an asset to the offense.