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Feature Back or Running Back-By-Committee: How should the Steelers proceed in 2020?

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The Steelers’ running attack has some questions to answer heading into 2020, and it is time to decipher their options.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Los Angeles Chargers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

To begin, I had some technical difficulties with my account over the weekend and had to re-boot everything, which means no more Cliff Harris is Still a Punk! The handle may die but the grudge will live on. I congratulate Mr. Harris on being elected recently to the Hall of Fame and, from what I have read, on a successful life after football. However, as the personification of all that was obnoxious about the Dallas Cowboys of my youth, and as the first football villain I ever knew, he will always remain a punk in my eyes. Godspeed, Mr. Harris, and may the Cowboys forever suck.

On to the business of the week...

I was corresponding recently with Scott Pavelle, aka Drop The Hammer, who, to our collective misfortune, has taken his writing talents elsewhere. Nevertheless, we were discussing the backfield situation in Pittsburgh and the pros and cons of the “Running-Back-By-Committee” (RBBC) versus “Feature Back” approach. The popular narrative is that head coach Mike Tomlin prefers to give the lion’s share of carries to one back and will not use RBBC unless forced to by circumstance. This is important to understand given the fact the Steelers’ backfield, led by the often-injured James Conner, may not contain a viable “feature back” as currently constructed. In this week’s article, we will break down how the carries have been allocated during the Tomlin era and evaluate the pros and cons of the RBBC versus Feature Back approach. And, with running back an area of concern for the Steelers, we will offer some thoughts on how they might proceed in 2020.


First, the data. Historically, does Mike Tomlin prefer the “feature back” approach, as the popular wisdom insists? The answer is… ABSOLUTELY. For a look at the numbers, consult the chart below:

The chart displays the carries per game (CPG) of the top backs in Pittsburgh for each season Tomlin has been the head coach. Only twice, in 2012 and 2019 (each highlighted in yellow), did the Steelers use something resembling the RBBC approach. There are other years where the disparity between the “feature” back and the secondary back was not quite as great, such as 2009, when the team transitioned from Willie Parker to Rashard Mendenhall as the primary ball-carrier, or in 2011, when Mendenhall yielded some of his reps to Isaac Redman. In 2015-2016, when Le’Veon Bell was both hurt and suspended, the Steelers leaned heavily on DeAngelo Williams. But Williams was the bell cow in Bell’s absence (he did not split carries with Fitz Toussaint, the third back on the roster) and when Bell returned Williams was relegated to a secondary role. Bell and Williams never really shared the workload; they merely alternated as feature backs. Such has been Tomlin’s preference whenever he’s had a back he can “feature.”

What about 2012 and 2019, then? What happened in those seasons that caused Tomlin to deviate from this approach? Two things: injuries and insufficient talent.

The Steelers entered 2012 with Mendenhall on IR recovering from an ACL injury sustained in the last game of the 2011 season. They opted not to select a high-profile back in the draft, presumably because Mendenhall was just 25 years old and expected to fully recover, and waited until the 5th round to grab Florida scat-back Chris Rainey. The season commenced with no one good enough to merit “feature back” status so the team opted for an RBBC group of Redman and Jonathan Dwyer as their power runners and Baron Batch and Rainey as the change-of-pace backs. Mendenhall joined the mix when he came off of IR midway through the season but was rusty and amassed just 51 total carries. The team struggled to run the football, finishing 26th in the league in yards per game. They missed the playoffs at 8-8.

The woes of 2019 have been well-documented, with the Ben Roethlisberger injury dooming the offense as a whole. Still, the team struggled to define itself in the run game. Carries were divided among James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr. and Kerith Whyte, with each contributing to some degree. The Steelers hardly ran the ball the first three weeks, with Conner leading the team with 11, 10 and 13 carries. They broke things up in subsequent weeks, with Conner and Samuels getting 10 carries apiece against Cincinnati and Conner and Snell getting 16 and 17, respectively, against the Chargers. Conner was the main man with 23 carries in a week nine win over Indianapolis. But he was injured in that game and the RBBC approach resumed. Snell and Samuels combined for 23 carries against the Browns. Snell, Samuels and Whyte split 28 touches against Arizona. Against the Jets, it was Conner, Snell and Whyte getting seven carries each. It was a hodge-podge of an attack, mixing the inside running of Snell, the outside running of Whyte, the versatility of Conner and whatever it was they had Samuels do. The Steelers finished 27th in rushing and again missed the playoffs.

It’s fair to say that when Tomlin has a healthy back he likes and trusts, he runs him hard. And why not? The Steelers have made the playoffs in eight of the 11 seasons he’s used the feature back approach while missing the playoffs both years he did not. The question the staff must answer heading into 2020 is this: is James Conner good and/or healthy enough to merit feature back status? And, if not, how should the offense proceed?


THE PROS AND CONS OF THE FEATURE BACK APPROACH

Ask any running back which of the two they would prefer and they will likely campaign for the feature back approach. For some, this is a matter of selfishness and of wanting to be “the man.” But for many, it’s a matter of effectiveness. Running backs often claim to improve with reps as a game progresses because they get a sense for the flow of the defense and for where the cuts will emerge. Tennessee’s Derrick Henry relayed these thoughts to reporters in an interview with NBC Sports before the AFC Championship game in January: “I think I get in a rhythm the more carries I get,” Henry said. “I get a better feel for the game as it goes on.” (In Henry’s case, defenses probably get tired of tackling him, too, which certainly helps).

What about that “feel” to which Henry referred? Generally, when a game begins, defenses are flying around and running full speed to the football. They are fresh and the adrenaline is pumping. As a game progresses, however, the task of running to the football begins to take its toll as defenders get weary legs. They don’t fill or flow as quickly, leaving seams that didn’t exist at the outset. Or, for those defenses that continue to play fast, offensive coordinators run “constraint” plays such as bootlegs, counters and reverses to slow them down. Couple this with the fact that offensive linemen are generally bigger than their defensive counterparts and can wear them down simply by pounding at them long enough and you can see how, over time, a running back begins to see the field better.

Let’s get more specific. If the backside linebacker has been making plays on the front side of the inside zone play all day long, but now it’s late in the 3rd quarter and he’s no longer getting there as fast, a back knows he can hammer away at the front side when his team runs that play. Maybe he does this a few times until he’s tackled by the back-side defensive tackle, who has begun to pinch hard across the center to compensate for the backer’s absence. Once the RB sees this, and he knows the DT is vacating the back side, he can begin cutting the zone play back to exploit the hole the DT has left.

Or take this example. Let’s say a team is running outside zone and doing a nice job sealing the edge player to allow the back to turn the corner. But the strong safety is flying up into the alley and meeting him just across the line of scrimmage. The back will probably start taking the first cut inside the edge player, who should be fighting like hell to not get reached and possibly creating a seam in the C-gap. Or, hopefully, the offensive coordinator has seen the strong safety being aggressive against the run and has burned him on play-action a time or two. Now that safety isn’t so aggressive and the back can look to get to the alley again.

If a back has only had a few carries he might learn of these things while watching video of the offense on a tablet on the sideline. Or one of the backs in the RBBC rotation may tell him what’s going on. Until he sees it at full speed, however, he can’t really get a sense of how the plays are developing. Where, exactly, is that tackle pinching to on inside zone? Does it require a hard cut to hit the back-side seam or is it more of a jump cut? Once a back has had twelve or fifteen carries, he’s seen how these plays have transformed and he knows where to go with the football.

The cons of the feature back approach are fairly obvious. A team can only “feature” one back at a time, and should that back get injured (which, given the heavy workload this approach demands, is quite possible), the next back up isn’t likely to be as accomplished or productive. The Steelers avoided this problem in 2015-2016 because they smartly nabbed the capable Williams on an affordable free agent contract. Williams was at the end of his career and looking to play for a contender. But most good backs won’t settle for the bread crumbs a backup gets in this type of system. This was the problem in 2012 when Mendenhall went down and the Steelers were forced to go to RBBC because their backups were ill-suited for the feature back approach. The results were less than stellar.

Teams like the Steelers or Titans or Cowboys who employ the feature back method must do their best to secure a serviceable backup who can carry the load in the short term if their bell cow is lost for a game or two. If he’s gone for an extended period of time, they’d better hope their quarterback can bear the weight. If neither is the case, you get an offense like the one Pittsburgh produced in 2019.


THE PROS AND CONS OF RBBC

The NFL’s top two rushing teams in 2019, Baltimore and San Francisco, each employed the RBBC approach. These rushing attacks managed to blend speed (Lamar Jackson and Matt Breida) with solid inside runners (Mark Ingram/Gus Edwards and Raheen Mostert) and a versatile, jack-of-all-trades type (Justice Hill and Tevin Coleman) to attack defenses in a multitude of ways.

Both offenses managed to disperse their carries democratically. In Baltimore, Ingram got 202 carries, Jackson 176, Edwards 133 and Hill 58. San Francisco’s balance was remarkable, as Mostert, Breida and Coleman all carried the ball between 123 and 137 times. Both teams bucked the league trend of being heavy on 11 personnel sets in favor of multiple groupings, particularly 12 and 21. San Francisco often used a fullback, Kyle Juszczyk, as a lead blocker while Baltimore ran a host of two-back sets using Ingram and Edwards together with Jackson as a third run threat.

The thing that really made the RBBC work for both teams was how versatile their lineups were. Ingram and Edwards were strong inside runners but the threat of Jackson pulling the ball and running to the edge meant defenses couldn’t gang up on Baltimore between the tackles. In San Francisco, Breida was just good enough to run between the tackles to keep defenses from focusing on his outside run ability while Mostert and Coleman could do a little of both. The Niners used Juszczyk effectively as a receiver out of the backfield to exploit overly-aggressive linebackers while tight end George Kittle was deadly on play-action as well. So, both teams had roles for their backs that were balanced by something else (Jackson’s running ability, San Fran’s play-action game) that kept defenses off-balance, prohibiting them from concentrating on the strengths of specific backs.

The RBBC approach suffers when a team cannot compensate for how a defense adjusts to the running back rotations. In Pittsburgh, for example, RBBC with the current group of backs is not a great fit. The Steelers base overwhelmingly out of 11 personnel (one back, one tight end and three receivers) and do not have a quarterback who can run the football. Nor do they utilize a fullback in the offense. Nor are they a great play-action team. The offense is set up to hand the ball to the single back and to let the quarterback throw it. There is very little from a scheme standpoint to keep a defense from playing to the strengths of the particular backs who would be used in a RBBC rotation.

Take Benny Snell, for example. Snell is a nice inside runner but does not possess the speed to run to the edge. Without some sort of perimeter threat in the offense (jet sweep, zone read, an option concept, play-action to the fullback in the flat) defenses are free to key the inside run game. On the other hand, Kerith Whyte and Jaylen Samuels have proven to be ineffective inside runners and are best on counters and outside runs. Without something to threaten the A and B gaps, linebackers know they can fly over the top when they get run reads with Whyte and Samuels in the game. Only James Conner is versatile enough to run both inside and outside on a consistent basis. Conner is a good receiver and adept in pass protection as well. His versatility combined with the structure of the current offense and the limitations of the other backs makes the feature back approach the more preferable option.


HOW SHOULD THE STEELERS APPROACH THE RUN GAME IN 2020?

Therein lies the rub. Conner has missed eight games the past two seasons because of injury. When you run a feature back system but your feature back gets injured a lot, you have problems. The Steelers could replace Conner with someone more durable, but salary cap constraints and limited draft capital will make that difficult. They could look to upgrade their backup situation by finding someone more versatile than the current trio of Samuels, Snell and Whyte. But that would represent cost at a position where the team has spent third, fourth and fifth round picks in recent drafts. This leaves the RBBC approach, which, given the current crop of backs and the existing offensive system, is problematic. How should the Steelers proceed, then? Which approach should they take?

Personally, I don’t believe they will adopt the RBBC approach. That has not been Tomlin’s M.O. and, to do so, the offense would need to be restructured. RBBC means more personnel groups, more play-action and more deception. With Big Ben returning after a season away, the staff will want him as comfortable as possible. It’s unlikely they’ll make significant changes. Therefore, we are likely to see a resumption of the feature back approach, with Conner in the starring role.

I love Conner and I think he is good enough to be a feature back. He proved as much in 2018 when he rushed for nearly 1,000 yards while catching 55 passes out of the backfield. He is tough, smart and versatile. He is also an injury risk. The Steelers managed to go 5-3 in those eight games he missed the past two seasons, but two of the losses were down the stretch in 2018 when a poor close to the season cost them a playoff berth. A team doesn’t want to gamble on whether their feature back will be healthy when needed most, and that has proven to be the case with Conner. If the Steelers are to move forward with the feature back approach, they need to add another horse to their stable.

Who might that be? To be honest, I’m not sure. The available list of free agent running backs contains some interesting options as a true #2 behind Conner. The Steelers seem to have drafted Snell for this purpose, however. Should Conner go down again, I sense they are comfortable with Snell as the feature back. That would leave Samuels and Whyte as the supplemental backs, which feels shaky. In the event the Steelers prefer Snell as the backup to Conner, they should look to upgrade from Samuels and Whyte. Hammer’s Big Board lists players such as LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire or Arizona State’s Eno Benjamin as possible draft targets to fill this role. Whomever it is, adding a versatile and athletic player who can solidify the backfield would be useful.

All things considered, I expect to see more of the feature back approach in Pittsburgh in 2020. It’s the approach-of-choice of the head coach and the offense is structured for it. That said, having a plan in place for keeping the run game effective if (when) James Conner goes down should be one of the top priorities of the off-season.