With minicamps wrapping up last week around the league, there has been news swirling around every NFL. While a topic of lesser discussion when focusing on the main storylines for the Pittsburgh Steelers, a couple notes have been made by reporters and media present by how UFA signing Kalen Ballage has looked thus far with the team. Reports state that he is looking good in drills and could have a chance to push third-year back Benny Snell for a roster spot come training camp and the preseason.
In a previous article, I highlighted Anthony McFarland Jr. as the potential change-of-pace back to compliment rookie Najee Harris in the run game, having that smaller, shiftier build the other two backs don’t have and the receiving chops and explosiveness to rip off long runs as a good option behind the bell cow workload we expect Harris to receive as the team’s lead back.
While this may be the case, the need for a suitable power back with feature size is needed as well if Harris needs a breather or gets injured, leaving Snell and Ballage as the likely two candidates to take over said role, I decided to build off of my previous report, analyzing the two players to decide whether there is reason to believe Ballage has a case to unseat Snell on the roster for 2021.
As we can identify with his first two seasons in Pittsburgh, Snell is a back that appears to get better as the game goes on, wearing on opposing defenses and becoming a chore to tackle. He runs behind his pads well and can be the aggressor as a runner, looking to dish out punishment of his own as we see here on this nasty stiff arm against Marcus Peters.
Snell has also fallen in the favor of ST Coordinator Danny Smith for the role he has provided the Steelers on special teams, playing multiple kick and punt coverage units. Should he stay on the roster, Snell will likely retain the same role behind Harris playing the feature back role. Here we see a case on punt overage vs the Jets where Snell shows great effort on the attempted punt block, coming off the line hard on the right side and diving to try and block the punt.
Another thing going for Snell is his willingness to stick his face in the fan as a pass protector. He has come a long way in this facet of the game since he was drafted, and still has room to improve more. Here against the Giants, we see Snell step up and take on the blitzing safety #21 Jabril Peppers in the hole, absorbing the hit and holding his ground as Ben makes the touchdown pass to Juju Smith-Schuster in the end zone.
While a fairly successful bruising back, Snell tends to struggle when having to create for himself outside of what is blocked for him. Here against Cincinnati, we watch Snell get the hand off in a short-yardage situation, but improperly reads the hole opening up to the left, running straight into the linebacker coming downhill for a loss on the play. Would Snell have executed a jump cut to the left, he would have had enough green grass to pick up first down yardage.
However, he has shown the ability to make decisive plays every once in a while, when he has space. He isn’t crazy shifty for a big back, but he can have some wiggle to him when he can anticipate and has good vision on a run. Here in the same game, we see Snell take the handoff on the draw and cut it up to the left where there is an open gap, evading a diving ankle tackle and finishing the run the only way he knows how: putting his shoulder down into the safety to plow him over to gain extra yardage while falling forward.
This type of physicality we see on the stiff-arm play and the play above are what Tomlin refers to as “Benny Snell Football”. Here against the Giants, we see another example of this where Snell actually gets the corner on Peppers who takes a bad angle and gallops up the sideline. Instead of running out of bounds when the defender catches up to him, he cuts it back up field, getting whatever he can at the end of the run, bullying his way through contact.
When the play is well-blocked, Snell is a capable, effective runner. He hits the hole hard and can squeeze through even tight gaps like we see here against the Ravens, breaking out a tackle from behind and gathering himself by using his arm to stay upright as he maintains his balance and gets brought down inside the five yard line.
Another example here on Snell’s first career run versus the Seahawks where he hits the hole hard, getting into open space and jukes one defender to the right eventually being chased down by #54 Bobby Wagner from behind.
While he has provided value on special teams his first two seasons, Snell has failed to provide any significant impact as a receiver out of the backfield. His run success rate decreased with porous offensive line play due to his lack of vision and ability to create for himself, but also to the fact that his lack of burst and speed. As seen above, Snell is often caught from behind by defenders in pursuit even when he has a ton of green grass in front of him, thus being a direct representation of the subpar 4.66 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine he had in his lack of big-play runs.
Overall, Snell is a runner that can get what is blocked for him and be useful on the goal line, but the rest of his game is fairly limited due to lack of athletic upside. For instance, 23% of his rushes last season went for zero or negative yardage.
Now onto the analysis of Kalen Ballage. Ballage is a HWS specimen who hasn’t put it all together since coming into the league from Arizona State in 2018, but he does have the open field juice that Benny Snell lacks in terms of speed and explosiveness. He ran a 4.46 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, and while his lack of vision and field awareness has played a detriment in showcasing this speed, Ballage has had instances where this athleticism shows up on film, mainly his 75-yard TD run against the Vikings below where he gets in space and breaks away from the entire defense for the long score. According to Next Gen Stats, Ballage’s run was the fourth-fastest top speed recording in the NFL during that season.
His open-field is something that is tantalizing to an offense for a player of his size if he gets in the open grass. Here is another example from a joint practice with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where Ballage gets into the second level of the defense and hits the jets up the sideline to take the carry to the house, outrunning two DBs in pursuit to the corner.
He also has statistically been very effective in short-yardage situations as highlighted by Alex Kozora after the signing, converting 18/24 attempts on third or fourth down with 1-2 yards to go for a 75% success rate. For comparison, Snell has a 56.3% success rate in the same short-yardage situations during the same time frame. Here is a good example on third-and-one near the goal line against the Bills where Ballage takes the handoff and shoots forward into the line, driving his legs on contact to cross the goal line for the score while being wrapped up from behind.
Ballage knows he’s a big back and isn’t afraid to use his size and power to impose his will as a runner. Here on this example vs the Raiders last season, we see Ballage execute a good jump cut to the left, get up field with burst and put his shoulder into the safety coming up to tackle him, bulldozing him over for extra yardage on the chunk play.
While Ballage is mainly a straight-line runner that doesn’t have a lot of consistency in his lateral movement skills and feel for changing directions quickly, there are glimpses like we see in the play above and on this rep against the Jets where he is able to properly evade tacklers and pick up big chunk yardage. Here we see him take the handoff to the left side of the formation and put his foot in the ground to cut upfield, avoiding the ankle tackle and keeping his balance to get a few extra yards at the end of the run.
Another trait that Ballage has going for him is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and create YAC. Snell has been relatively ineffective in the passing game thus far in his Steelers career, and Ballage has shown to be a viable pass-catching option as a check down option in the flats like we see here against the Ravens where he gets the ball behind the LOS and accelerates forward with room to run, putting his head down through multiple defenders and he keeps his legs churning to pick up the first down.
As mentioned earlier, Ballage is a physically gifted back, but his game has a lot of inconsistencies. His vision is poor, leading to a bad YPC average throughout his NFL career. He also has been utilized in the passing game, but as seen in the clip below, he isn’t the most natural receiver out of the backfield in terms of having a feel for the ball coming to him.
While he also has played on special teams’ units like Snell, Snell is definitely the better pass protector of the two. Here we see a bad rep by Ballage who is asked to step up in pass protection but is unable to maintain his block on #58 Matt Milano, lunging forward and unable to maintain his base which allows Milano to get his hands on the ball and almost covert for the interception before it drops to the turf.
All that being said, Ballage does provide some intrigue as a successful short-yardage back, having the fifth-best success rate in the league the last two seasons (minimum 24 attempts via Alex Kozora’s article) along with the potential to rip off big chunk plays on the ground and provide special teams value on kick and punt coverage units. The number of hats he can wear will give him value and a chance to continue behind Harris.
So, seeing the pros and cons of both runners, which one should be the favorite to win the roster spot? While I am a sucker for the new shiny toy and HWS specimens at skill positions like Ballage provides, I have to say that I do think Snell is still the leader in the clubhouse as we sit here today.
First, he’s been with the team for two seasons and was drafted by the front office, so they have capital invested in him. Second, while he isn’t the most elusive or explosive runner, the poor offensive line play last season can be partially to blame for some of his shortcomings, likely meaning we could see his successful run rates rise with better play upfront. Third, Snell is a reliable pass protector which is invaluable for the likes of an older Ben Roethlisberger in the pocket, and Pittsburgh’s backs have traditionally been strong in pass protection over the years as a quality they take very seriously.
So, does this mean that Ballage doesn’t have a chance? No, they signed him for a reason and he shares a lot of similar qualities Snell has as a big short-yardage back that can play special teams and can rip off big plays. He catches passes and also has that speed element Snell just can’t bring to the table. For Ballage to unseat Snell, he likely has to show improvement in pass protection this preseason and also showcase his dynamic traits as an athlete on a couple of big gains on the ground. Should he do this, he could make the case for a higher upside option behind Najee Harries than Snell can provide. Time will tell how this training camp battle shakes out, but I am excited to watch preseason action to see who goes and takes that job behind Harris backup runner with the size the Steelers love.
What are your thoughts on the Ballage news and the potential for a training camp battle between he and Benny Snell? Do you think Snell has the job on lock, or do you think Ballage has a chance to push Snell for that spot? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!