Danny Smith said the quiet part out loud. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ depth chart shows Najee Harris the starter with Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage behind. But to accurately represent the pecking order, there should be tiers. It’d look like this.
Tier 1: Najee Harris
Tier 14: Benny Snell, Kalen Ballage
And nothing else in-between. Harris is the bellcow, through and through, and the Steelers figuratively declared it by burning a first-round pick on him this April. Smith literally declared it so speaking with reporters last week. And made clear what the roles of everyone behind him will be.
“I tell them we have Najee Harris, so it’s not rocket science when it comes to who’s going to be carrying the load this year,” Smith told reporters via a team transcript. “Benny and Kalen won’t be getting much. I know they want to be the starting running backs, just like I want to be the head coach. That’s not happening for any of us. I will not be the head coach and they won’t be the lead dog. We just have to focus on our business, and it makes sense to those guys.”
Don’t give up on those head coach dreams, Danny.
But his point is obvious and true. Snell and Ballage will see time offensively, especially now that Anthony McFarland will miss at least the first three games, but their snap count will be limited. Instead, their impact must and will come on special teams. An area both guys have proven experience, especially Snell.
“Benny made this team originally on special teams,” Smith went on to say. “He was beating double teams and making tackles.”
Snell has carved out a niche role on the coverage unit. Don’t take that for granted. It can be hard to get college all-stars like Snell was to buy in on special teams. He went from Big Man on Campus at Kentucky, one of the most prolific runners in SEC history, to second and third fiddle in the NFL, lining up as the left wing on punts, L3 on kickoffs, and doing the dirty work that gets no press outside or Smith’s office. Snell got healthy just in time this preseason and it’s clear his work on special teams (and McFarland’s injury) cemented his roster spot.
Ballage has also gotten work there, too. But Smith said he’s adjusting to the way the Steelers teach things.
“Ballage is a big man, it just takes time for him to do it our way. I’m not saying our way is special or different. Just learning a new team takes time, as well as learning my expectations. It’s been good. He missed a little bit of time and it bothered me a little bit, but that happens, and he is a veteran. They’re both good core players.”
He could serve in similar roles as Snell. Potentially as a wing on the punt team, an upback on the kick return team, and along with running down kicks.
Pittsburgh’s not trying to subvert expectations. At least Smith isn’t. He knows exactly where Snell and Ballage stand in this offense. Unless there’s an injury, they’ll be fighting for scraps behind Harris, who should play 75%+ of the time. Contributing to this team and competing for a roster spot – there’s no guarantee the team keeps four running backs once McFarland is healthy – will come by playing well on special teams this season.