Despite seeing James Conner return to the fold during Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills, head coach Mike Tomlin was not pleased with what he saw out of the position for the Pittsburgh Steelers this week, and has an idea about how to improve their performance going forward: a more clearly-defined backfield with roles for individual players.
Over the course of the past two years, Conner when healthy has been the bellcow back, the featured runner who typically doesn’t come off the field much, unless it was in favor of a fourth or fifth wide receiver. He did see most of the snaps on Sunday, but got only 12 touches.
Jaylen Samuels had gotten most of the snaps during Conner’s extended absence due to a shoulder injury. The latter played just one corner over the previous six games heading into Sunday’s game against the Bills, though Benny Snell got a heavy percentage of the actual touches.
“We’ve got some holes to plug. We’ve got some things to do. We’ve got to run the ball better”, Tomlin said yesterday during his pre-game press conference. “We’ve got to divide the labor up among the running backs a little bit more decisively”.
One of the reasons that these issues came up in the game, Tomlin hinted, was because there was some uncertainty at the position during the week. Conner had obviously missed an extended period of time, but Samuels was also dealing with an injury and his status wasn’t clear.
“We had some question marks last week about James’ availability, about Jaylen’s availability, and I think that hurt us from a prep standpoint”, he said, “and subsequently, I thought we had some issues from a blitz pickup standpoint”.
“I thought Buffalo was able to apply more pressure on us in passing circumstances that we would like”, he added. “I think a more stable division of labor and a division of labor at the running back position that we can anticipate will allow us to be more stout in that area”.
Between Snell, Kerrith Whyte, and Trey Edmunds, the entire trio combined for a whopping nine snaps, with Whyte getting six of them on his own. They only got four touches between them for a combined six yards on the ground.
It’s unclear what sort of delineations Tomlin might have in mind for the division of labor in the backfield. Perhaps more third-down work for Samuels, short-yardage opportunities for Snell, and gadgets and draws and pulls for Whyte?
Especially considering they just got their Pro Bowler back, it would certainly be expected that we see a positive trend in the advancement of the running back position. Sunday’s game certainly did not represent that.