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2021 Training Camp Battles: Backup Running Back

With training camp just around the corner, it’s time to turn our focus on what is going on within each position, and on the roster as a whole. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be taking a closer look at some of the roster battles that we expect to see unfold over the course of training camp as the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for the start of the 2021 season.

Unlike last season, which was carried out through a pandemic, things should return much to normal this year, which should help provide us with clearer insights into where people stand. The return of the preseason in particular is a crucial window into operations that we lacked a year ago.

Position: Running Back

Up for Grabs: Backup Job

In the Mix: Benny Snell Jr., Kalen Ballage, Anthony McFarland

Even a year into his career, it’s kind of hard to get a feel for whether or not Anthony McFarland belongs in this conversation. While he’s far from a scatback, he is still smaller than your average running back, and it’s not clear whether or not he could be the sort of featured runner that the Steelers prefer in even their backup running backs.

We all know who the starter is, of course. That’s Najee Harris, and that was an uncontested distinction from the moment it became clear that he was going to be available when the time came for the Steelers to draft in the first round back in April. The question is, who comes on the field when he’s not on it?

At the very least, McFarland figures to get work as a change-of-pace back, but does he really profile as the backup, the guy who does the same things the starter does when he’s not on the field? Perhaps not. And perhaps the other two will be competing for only one roster spot.

Contestant number one is the incumbent, Benny Snell, who is entering his third season with the Steelers and was the number two runner behind James Conner last year. While he is a big-bodied back who is capable of running with a physical presence, the reality is that his game left much to be desired last season.

Signed as a free agent this offseason is Kalen Ballage, who perhaps bears some similarities to Snell in terms of their body type and style, but Ballage is more experienced, and more proven. And he does have 52 career receptions to his name, so there is that, though advanced stat sites indicate that he drops the ball, so perhaps that’s a wash.

I do think the Steelers still like Snell and what he’s capable of doing, and perhaps they think he fits with what they’re attempting to do with the offensive line. On the other hand, if the team actually decides to go with three running backs—which they do as often as they don’t—I don’t think they’ll hesitate to go with Ballage over him if they think he is more apt for the job. The question then will be whether or not they can get him on the practice squad.

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