Now that the Le’Veon Bell saga is officially over, the Pittsburgh Steelers can focus all their attention on the running backs who will be on the field in 2019. How is that pecking order going to play out and what their roles will be is yet to be seen. There has been talk from head coach Mike Tomlin that he wants to have a more balanced attack in 2019 compared to the pass-happy team that led the NFL in both passing attempts and completions last season. If the rushing volume increases, how are the touches distributed?
Tomlin has hinted that Pittsburgh may take more of a running back by committee approach this upcoming season.
“James’ versatility and level of conditioning will be factors in that discussion,” Tomlin said when asked about a committee approach. “We’re open to it. All people are working hard, but there are some other viable men. It’s just not a two-man discussion at the running back position. I’ve been pleased with the progress of the larger body.”
Is this just “coach speak” or will Tomlin use a true running back by committee for the first time in his coaching career? Fans should take this with a grain of salt until an RBBC is seen on the field of play during meaningful games.
In 2018 despite missing the last three games of the season, James Conner was voted to the Pro Bowl while amassing 1,470 total yards and 13 touchdowns. The injury bug has bit the former Pitt Panther star each of his first two pro seasons and that is something he will need to overcome to return to the Pro Bowl. Conner will need to show he can be durable if he wants to hold off any chance that other running backs cut into his bellcow playing time in 2019.
Former North Carolina State, running back Jaylen Samuels (jack of all trades) started off 2018 slow while not touching the pigskin for the first four weeks. During the next six week stretch, the 2018 fifth-round selection toted the ball 13 times for 31 yards and another 54 yards receiving. With Conner out, the Steelers gave Samuels three straight starts with the premiere game against the New England Patriots. During his breakout game, Samuels showcased his wiggle to breaking many arm tackles en route to 172 total yards on 21 touches. Is this what the Steelers can expect going forward or the 11 rushes for 28 yards in a loss to the Raiders the week before?
Samuels use going forward became complicated by the Steelers adding Benny Snell Jr. in the draft last April. The former Kentucky product rushed for 3,873 yards and 48 touchdowns in his three-year college career and left school before his senior season. While Snell does not have the receiving hands that Samuels has, he still hauled in 17 receptions in 2018 and is seen as a dual purpose back for the Steelers moving forward.
Trey Edmunds, Steelers starting safety Terrell Edmunds older brother, spent the first 13 games on the Steelers practice squad before being promoted to the active roster following Conner injury. Edmunds is out of practice squad eligibility so his only hope is to make the 53 man roster which is only liable to happen if an injury occurs. The other unlikely event is the Steelers carrying four running backs. Such a move is highly unlikely to happen. Edmunds has a leg up on the other three backs on the roster who are camp bodies.
The talk about a running back by committee is just that but the Steelers need to limit Conner touches and not run him into the ground. While Samuels had a great game against New England, it was just one game. As he barely played running back in college, Snell is the true running back option for the direct backup role. Samuels would be limited to more of a specialty third-down back role. In fantasy football terms, Snell is Conner’s handcuff and will be the first off the bench if an injury were to befell Conner.
RB1 — James Conner
RB2 — Benny Snell
RB3 — Jaylen Samuels