It’s now or never for “Benny Snell Football.”
Whether that’s a fair assessment or not is up for debate, but ahead of the 2022 season — Snell Jr.’s final year under contract in the black and gold — the former fourth-round running back and star at Kentucky is at a crossroads.
Slotted in currently as the backup to star running back Najee Harris, Snell’s role as the No. 2 running back might not appear as safe as many believe. Though he brings plenty of experience and ability to the table — especially on special teams — the Steelers very clearly need to upgrade the backup role to Harris, considering the way they use the former Alabama star.
If Harris were to go down for any length of time in 2022, would it be wise to count on Snell Jr. to carry the load like Harris has? Unlikely.
Still, some of the criticism of Snell Jr.’s game has gone a bit too far. According to numbers compiled by The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly, Snell averaged 16 carries for 65 yards per game (4.05 yards per carry) in 10 career games in which he either started (five) or finished with at least 12 carries.
Additionally, if you subtract the 2020 game against the then-Washington Football Team (eight carries, five yards), Snell averaged 17 carries for 72 yards per game and 4.2 yards per rush when he carried the ball 12 times or more. That’s a pretty decent sample size and sound numbers overall from the fourth-year running back.
However, there’s no chance he’s getting 12 carries a game — let alone starting — with Harris healthy and on the roster. That raises the question of what he can do in limited snaps. Simple answer? Not much.
Snell Jr. is a guy that gets better as the game goes on; the more work he gets, the better he gets and starts really hammering defensive fronts rolling downhill in the run game. Those chances just won’t be there as a complimentary No. 2 in the Steel City behind a guy like Harris, especially with a play style.
“I think I did OK when I got a chance,” Snell said to Kaboly, according to original reporting from The Athletic. “You never know when those chances are going to come, so you have to be ready for it when it comes. You just don’t get a lot of chances in this league. You have to be ready for them.”
To his credit, Snell Jr. has been ready for the minimal chances that have come in recent years while sharing a backfield with the likes of Harris and James Conner. But, with the Steelers very clearly leaning heavily on Harris, Snell Jr.’s opportunities offensively will be diminished, which could lead to serious struggles when he’s on the field for a series or two, failing to give the Steelers productive snaps overall.
Some of those struggles popped up in a big way in 2021, but maybe that can be attested to the offensive line’s failures. It’s not like Snell Jr. had a bunch of running room last season and simply couldn’t do anything with it.
We’ll see if second-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada, head coach Mike Tomlin and running backs coach Eddie Faulkner give Snell Jr. more opportunities in 2022 after stating that the plan was to lighten Harris’ load some. There’s a better chance the Steelers add a veteran running back in ahead of training camp, or on cutdown day, rather than rolling out Snell Jr. as the No. 2 behind Harris at this point.