While the running backs talked about it in the offseason, I don’t think the coaching staff really entered the regular season having any kind of idea about the role that Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back Benny Snell might play, or be able to play, in 2019. Though they liked him a lot coming out of college, he was limited collegiately in the passing game, and did not have a good preseason.
After rushing for 23 yards through a nice hole on his first NFL touch, he struggled with efficiency through the next several weeks, though he did have a third-down conversion in a short-yardage situation mixed in there. He was only averaging a couple snaps a game, but then Jaylen Samuels, their backup running back, went down with a knee injury.
Suddenly, Snell had to play. Samuels was playing about 20 snaps per game or thereabout, so even with a running back like James Conner who has been a workhorse in the past, it was clear that they would be looking for him to play.
He did have to play on Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, and he turned in a strong performance, rushing for 75 yards on 17 attempts, and adding a 14-yard reception on top of it. 89 yards on 18 touches is a good way to show the coaching staff you can handle more.
But head coach Mike Tomlin was asked on Wednesday if he viewed Snell and what he was capable of doing now in a different light following his performance on the west coast. “I don’t”, he said. “I’m not surprised by that performance”.
“Sometimes it’s just a man and an opportunity”, he went on to say. “We’ve seen signs of that. We’ve talked openly in here about his level of production on special teams and that being an indicator of offensive or defensive readiness in a lot of instances with young guys. I’m not surprised by what he was able to do at all”.
Tomlin also essentially said that it was unlikely that Samuels would be back in time for the Steelers’ next game, so that means there will be another opportunity for Snell to command a larger workload. Conner is also a little banged up, so if that is still the case a week from now, that could also contribute to his snap count going north.