With the dust having settled on the 2019 NFL draft, we can begin to get a picture of how the Steelers fared. No one really knows how our picks will perform but we all have our prejudices and preconceived notions. Here are three of mine:
1. Devin Bush will provide the ingredient our defense has been lacking — namely, speed to the football at the second level — since Ryan Shazier’s terrible injury. He is a tough, instinctual linebacker who will solidify the Mack position for years to come.
2. Receiver Diontae Johnson won’t make people forget Antonio Brown but he won’t be a disappointment, either. He is far more polished than James Washington was at this point and he has a skill set — quickness off of the ball and the ability to make people miss in space — that Washington, Donte Moncrief and even Juju Smith-Schuster lack. Johnson won’t be an All-Pro but I will be surprised if he’s not successful here.
3. And finally, if you like James Conner, you’re going to love Benny Snell Jr. He is an old-school running back and a perfect compliment to Conner. He may not see the field as much as some of his rookie classmates but his presence on the roster could make him one of the most valuable players in Pittsburgh. Here’s why:
In an article I wrote in the run-up to the draft , I advocated trading up to select tight end T.J. Hockenson because I believed Hockenson would allow us to be more of a power run team, thus reducing our turnovers, controlling the clock and alleviating some of the pressure on both our defense and Ben Roethlisberger. We didn’t land Hockenson, of course, but the addition of Snell gives us another tough, between-the-tackles runner to pair with Conner. Snell’s selection suggests there will be more power football on tap in 2019.
Snell’s production at the University of Kentucky was legendary. He became UK’s all-time leading rusher in just three seasons and was one of only four running backs in SEC history to produce three consecutive 1,000 yard seasons. Snell had a nose for the end zone, accumulating an astounding 48 rushing touchdowns at UK. He ended his college career by shredding Penn State for 144 yards and two TDs in a 27-24 Citrus Bowl victory on New Year’s Day.
Two things jump out at me about Snell’s career at UK. One, as far as power backs go, Snell did a lot of the heavy lifting on his own. In Snell’s time at UK, one Wildcat offensive lineman was an All-SEC player while none were drafted. By contrast, fellow power backs Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris ran behind five All-SEC linemen at Alabama, three of whom were drafted. Wisconsin bruiser Jonathan Taylor, a likely 2020 1st round pick, had three All-Big 10 selections paving the way for him this season alone. Two of them were just drafted. Snell, meanwhile, ran behind an uninspiring offensive line against some of the best defensive fronts in college football. And yet he was still the most productive back in Kentucky history.
His bowl performance against Penn State showcased the best of Snell’s combination of power and vision. Below we see the touchdown run that gave Snell the all-time UK rushing record. It’s an inside zone run and Snell takes it where it’s designed to go - right up the A-gap between the center and guard. The thing I like about this run is the way Snell “runs through the smoke,” as coaches often say. “Smoke,” in these terms, means clutter. There are a lot of moving parts in his path but no real danger (no “fire”). Rather than make a cut or bounce the ball outside, as many backs are wont to do, Snell lowers his pad level and hits the hole. The Wildcats’ offensive line simply needs to cover up their Penn State counterparts and Snell does the rest. This is a guy who will get downhill with his shoulders square and who, at a compact 5’10-225 pounds, will bring power and leverage when he does.
For an idea of Snell’s vision, consider the following clip. This is another inside zone run, just not blocked as well. Snell wants to take the ball inside again but Penn State’s left defensive tackle (#55) blows the offensive tackle into the backfield, collapsing the back-side A gap. Snell recognizes this immediately, veers left and works into the alley, where he runs through the arm tackle of a linebacker and hurdles a safety for good measure.
Don’t expect Snell to make a living on these types of runs in the NFL. He’s not a bounce-it-outside-and-make-people-miss kind of back. But he has the vision to see a cut and once he does he squares himself and runs hard. I read where some people compared him to Issac Redman on the BTSC draft day threads. All due respect, it’s a poor comparison. Snell is physical like Redman but not blindly so. He is a more complete runner than Redman ever was.
The other thing that jumps out at me about Snell is the scheme in which he played. Kentucky is predominantly a “spread” offense, although that has no bearing on the style of football they employ. When people hear “spread” they often think five receiver sets and 50 passes a game. That’s one way to utilize the spread philosophy but it’s not the only way. “Spread” does not mean scheme; rather, it describes personnel and formations. Kentucky spreads the field out of base 10 and 11 personnel but they do so to run the football between the tackles. Why? Because when you’re Kentucky and they’re Georgia, it doesn’t make sense to put a bunch of tight ends and fullbacks on the field since their big guys are better than yours. This doesn’t mean you can’t run the ball inside. It just means you have to get as many guys out of the box as possible to do so. Therefore, like many spread-to-run teams, Kentucky opens up the box with multiple receiver formations and then runs old-fashioned power football at the five or six defenders who remain.
Kentucky’s run game is built around the inside and outside zone plays and power-gap runs. They are the same concepts the Steelers use. We’ve seen Snell run inside zone. Now watch James Conner do it:
Same scheme, same style. Conner gets square, hits the A-gap and runs through an arm tackle.
Here are Snell and Conner running counter-gap:
This is the same concept run from two different looks. Kentucky uses a slot formation to spread the field and get defenders out of the box. The Steelers use a heavy set so that all 22 players are packed in like the Battle of Verdun. Either way, the scheme and philosophy are the same. Everyone on the play side blocks down. The back starts right then cuts left, where he follows a kick-out block from the guard and a wrap from his lead back (H-back for Kentucky, fullback for the Steelers). In both instances the defense has one too many players for the offense to block. Both offenses leave it up to the back to run through the extra defender. Both backs do exactly that.
These GIFs reveal how uncannily similar Snell and Conner look running the football. Neither is particularly quick but both are decisive. Both have an upright running style but lower their pads and reduce their strike zone once they hit the hole. And both churn their legs on contact and finish runs aggressively. It’s easy to see the continuity the Steelers run game would maintain with either Conner or Snell in the backfield.
THE BENEFITS OF RUNNING BACK-BY-COMMITTEE
Many will note that the running back-by-committee approach has never been Mike Tomlin’s style. Given the way he worked Le’Veon Bell like a rented mule when he was healthy, and how James Conner was overwhelmingly the feature back before he was injured last season, there is certainly precedent for that argument. Recent evidence may support a new argument, however, one that asserts the committee approach is upon us.
The emergence of Jaylen Samuels in Conner’s absence last season gives us the best one-two punch we’ve had at running back since Bell and De’Angelo Williams in 2015-16. Much like Bell and Williams, Conner and Samuels are very different backs. Both are big (220+ pounds) and both can catch the ball out of the backfield. But that’s largely where the similarities end. Conner is the classic power runner whereas Samuels operates better in space. Conner’s early season breakout came largely on the types of runs that earned Snell so many accolades at Kentucky: power runs between the tackles. Samuels’ breakout game against New England saw him do the majority of his damage on plays to the edge. When Conner returned for the season finale against Cincinnati, Samuels remained in the game-plan largely as a receiving option, where he caught seven passes.
It’s easy to see, then, how both could be utilized in the Steelers game-plan: Conner as the feature back, Samuels as the change-of-pace runner and receiver out of the backfield. Because Samuels is versatile and can line up in a variety of places, the two could even play together in certain packages.
As for Snell, at minimum he provides insurance for Conner should he get injured at some point. Last season, when Conner went down, we had to remake the run game because Samuels is such a different back from Conner. It worked against New England when we largely took the Patriots by surprise with our approach. As well as Samuels performed, however, the run game was incomplete without a guy who could earn money between the tackles.
Case in point: the following week, with our season on the line in New Orleans, we held a 28-24 lead with ten minutes to play and were driving the football when we faced a 3rd and 2 from the Saints 34 yard line. In an ill-advised decision, the seldom-used Steven Ridley was handed the ball on an inside run play. Ridley fumbled, the Saints recovered and the Steelers ended up losing the game and missing the playoffs as a result. There was no power back on the roster at that point to make those tough yards. This season, with or without Conner, that won’t be the case.
Beyond serving as an insurance policy, the Steelers could substitute Snell for Conner for an occasional series or two without having to alter the game-plan. This would alleviate some of the wear and tear that cost Conner three games last season. The fact that he and Conner are such similar runners means Snell could likely play in packages with Samuels as well. Even if Snell only got three or four carries per game, it would save Conner 50 or 60 carries over the duration of the season. That’s a full three games worth of carries, which would help keep Conner fresh for a playoff run. The Steelers haven’t enjoyed the luxury of entering the playoffs with a healthy feature back in years.
The committee approach, then, has too much merit and makes too much sense to simply discard it by saying, “That’s not what Tomlin does.” Philly and New England have both employed it with great success in recent seasons. Kansas City and New Orleans, too. With Conner and Samuels having emerged as viable backs and Snell selected as a distinct compliment to Conner, the past is not necessarily prologue.
So, to recap: Snell is an accomplished runner who was one of just four players in SEC history to amass three consecutive 1,000 yard rushing seasons; he is a power back whose presence on the roster provides us continuity in the run game so that if James Conner goes down we won’t have to remake the run game like we did last season; and, should he develop as expected, he could be used to alleviate some of the wear and tear on Conner so that all of the tread has not worn off of our feature back’s tires come December and January when we will (hopefully) need him most. With so much attention being paid to the bold trade that landed us Devin Bush in the 1st round and the surprising selection of Diontae Johnson in the 3rd round, Snell, should he help keep Conner healthy, could quietly become an invaluable contributor. That’s why, for me, he may be the hidden gem of this Steelers draft.