Steeler Backups Excelling In Fight For Spots Behind Najee

Anthony McFarland Ulysees Gilbert III

The names expected to contend for spots at running back behind Najee Harris on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster were known prior to the start of training camp, and with at least one of them likely going home at the end of it, the competition has been stellar thus far through a few weeks of practice and two preseason games.

Anthony McFarland, Benny Snell, Kalen Ballage, and Jaylen Samuels have all had highlights during the last month of football, and those are just the expected names. That doesn’t count recent signings who have had moments, led by Tony Brooks-James. It’s a competition to watch to see who complements Harris, and offensive coordinator Matt Canada spoke with the media following Tuesday’s camp practice about it.

“I think we’ve got a bunch of good players,” Canada said. “We’ve had a couple guys in and out, but I think Naj has been good with the limited reps he’s gotten. He’s looked pretty good and done things we’ve wanted to do.”

Canada went on to round up the competition.

“Ant [McFarland] came in both weeks and has shown some growth from year one to year two. J-Sam [Samuels] played pretty good. Benny’s [Snell] been nicked up, but we all know how strong Benny can be. KB [Ballage] got nicked up and showed pretty well in the first one.”

Running as the primary complement to Harris in practice, McFarland has done well in the role thanks to his speed. Thus far in two preseason games, he has 43 yards on 12 carries with a touchdown. Samuels is the only other back [excluding Harris] who has run in both preseason contests, with a team-leading 21 carries and 65 yards, as well as a touchdown.

Ballage was a one-game standout with 19 yards on five carries against the Cowboys. A pair of recent signings, Brooks-James and Pete Guerriero, took the main stage against the Eagles, TBJ with 51 yards on nine carries and Guerriero 20 yards on seven. Snell, as stated by Canada, has spent the preseason injured.

McFarland has the best average at 3.58 yards per carry among the leading contenders to make the roster. Ballage and Snell fill a similar skillset, while Samuels offers a little more versatility but was initially viewed as a longer shot to beat out those players for a spot. And don’t forget Brooks-James, whose 5.7 average likely earned him another chance on Saturday against the Detroit Lions.

It’s a good problem for the team and Canada to have, with so many backups to mix in behind Harris. The team appears likely to keep at least a fourth on the roster, and a fifth is not out of the picture. Neither is stashing at least one of the contenders who misses the 53-man roster on the practice squad.

“Faulk’s [RBs coach Eddie Faulkner] got a really good room right now, and I think competition is the greatest thing in life,” Canada said. “It makes you be the best every day. I think we’ve got a good situation there.”

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