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The contrasting running styles of James Conner and Benny Snell

Looking at the differences between the Steelers main running backs

Pittsburgh Steelers v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images

In this week’s film room, let’s take a look at James Conner and Benny Snell Jr. Conner and Snell were the leading rushers on the 2019 Steelers and are likely to be the top 2 runners again in 2020. So let’s compare their running styles, specifically looking at how they read run plays, and how that shapes their success and struggles in different plays.

James Conner’s reads

2018 Week 8, 2nd quarter, 1:55.

This is a twelve yard run from one of Conner’s better games in 2018. What should stand out is the clear changes in direction he makes multiple times in this run play. This play is perfect for showing the major way James Conner reads run plays.

Conner’s first read:

Conner is going to read the pulling guard’s block. DeCastro squares up the defender, so Conner cuts up field.

Conner’s second read:

Conner then looks to Ryan Switzer who is blocking the nickle corner. Switzer is inside his target and the defender has his outside hand free, so Conner stays inside and doesn’t cut outside of the block.

Conner’s third read:

Third, Conner reads the linebacker Vance McDonald is blocking. McDonald has him under control and they are moving with the arrow, so Conner cuts inside of that block.

This is how James Conner consistently reads run plays. He reads a single block at a time, and cuts away from the defender’s leverage or movement. It helps him progress from one read to another quickly. It is also a reason you hear that James Conner is better with a fullback, or in a power run scheme, because a pulling guard or a fullback give an easy first read for James Conner to react to. If that lead blocker makes the right block, James Conner can easily play off that block.

2018 Week 8, 2nd quarter, 1:19.

A pulling Ramon Foster gives Conner an easy first read, and he gains good yards off it, even when the defense gets to the play quickly.

This style of reading run plays can get Conner in trouble on zone runs.

2018, 2nd quarter, 2:58.

Conner cuts to his right, but there is nothing there but defenders. Let’s take a good look at the point where Conner has to decide where to go.

He’s about to land, and when he does he will commit to his run lane. The two yellow arrows point to unblocked defenders. The black arrow is pointing to the block Conner is reading.

No. 90 has inside leverage on Matt Feiler and his right arm is free, but that’s a more favorable situation than crashing into an unblocked defender. Here Conner would be best served by bursting forward, just inside Maurkice Pouncey’s block (middle of the logo), as close to Pouncey and as far from #90 as he can get. If he hit’s the spot hard and fast, the two unblocked defenders aren’t in position to make a play. If he makes the better choice, Conner is facing an arm tackle from a blocked lineman and beyond that is the safeties. Conner reading a single block at a time leads him to a worse choice here, even if he’s able to fight for a few yards.

Week 4, 1st quarter, 7:56.

James Conner most often ends up taking zone runs outside. The Steelers have number advantages inside, there’s places to attack there, but Conner sees Nick Vannett and JuJu Smith-Schuster get outside their defenders and goes outside.

Compare James Conner’s reads to Benny Snell’s.

Benny Snell football

Here’s a zone run where Benny Snell is faced with a wall of bodies. There are a lot of gaps a zone runner can take, which of the numbered gaps would you run to if you were Benny Snell?

Benny Snell reads this play very different than James Conner. The likely Conner read would be outside Allejandro Villenueva to the left, hopefully not to the right where the defender is outside Matt Feiler. James Conner does make reads like that occasionally, on plays where he reads inside first and commits to a direction where the defense has an advantage.

For a hint, look at the picture again, and look for Bengals helmets. Which gap doesn’t have a defensive helmet in it?

Week 12, 1st quarter, 5:53.

If you picked gap #2, you were correct. Benny Snell has great vision for zone runs, he reads gaps where he can crash into his blockers and get yards going forward. He is a runner who will frequently move a pile, because he hits where the defense offers less resistance.

In the run above where Conner cut outside into the unblocked defender, Benny Snell would be far more likely to read the defender being blocked as the weak point to run towards.

While this makes Benny Snell a better zone runner, it doesn’t do him many favors in a power run scheme, especially on outside runs.

Week 13, 2nd quarter, 4:50.

Bennie Snell’s style of reading the defense fails him here. DeCastro squares up the linebacker and gets a good hit on him, but Benny Snell runs outside of DeCastro, into the blocked defender. Running into blocked defenders is something Benny Snell does. Only this time he would have had much better success sticking a little closer to David DeCastro and cutting up field when DeCastro made his block, reading the play like James Conner would.

Fleshing out their skill sets

I need to put a caveat in here: Bennie Snell still does well on a good number of power runs, and James Conner’s reads don’t always cost him in zone runs.

Week 2, 4th quarter, 14:19.

Here Conner’s reads first from screen left, then inside, and the backside blocks are good enough to let him run cleanly through the middle. Just because he isn’t reading Matt Feiler and David DeCastro doesn’t mean he’s gong to get worse results, Conner just needs the part of the play he isn’t reading to not interfere with the reads he is making.

This is a big part of why James Conner was better in 2018 than 2019, and why you may hear things like “James Conner isn’t a good runner in traffic,” or that he’s better in space. If you scroll back up and look at the first run we broke down, there were only 6 defenders in the box, there was more space to run, and Conner could take advantage of his second and third read. That’s something Benny Snell doesn’t do as well. Benny Snell hits the line where the defense is weak, and gains extra yards by keeping his feet moving.

Week 13, 3rd quarter, 10:42.

It’s not easy to track Snell’s movement from the time he hits the line till he runs free into the end zone. He sees that while there are defenders there, he has blockers between him and the defense, and crashes into the mess. Snell keeps his feet churning and is able to work his way inside and through a partially blocked defender for the score. You can see the defender falling down as Snell breaks free. He was in contact with Benny Snell, but it was weak contact.

Talking to K.T. Smith about this film room he summed up the contrast in how Conner and Snell deal with contact perfectly.

Snell is a better runner through clutter than Conner and he really drives his legs through contact whereas Conner tends to lower his shoulders. That’s a big reason why I believe Conner gets injured. He does not power through contact with his lower body but uses the battering-ram approach instead.

Week 2, 2nd quarter, 4:14.

That’s the battering ram approach, and it works here to gain a few extra yards, but at the cost of a pretty big hit. James Conner made a big impression with Steelers fans for delivering those hits, especially in contrast to Le’Veon Bell, who rarely delivered hits like that and would run out of bounds to avoid taking hits. It should also stand out that Le’Veon Bell was injured far less than James Conner while carrying the ball a lot more.

James Conner’s run style may expose him to greater risk of injury, but it’s also a big reason why he breaks a lot of longer plays on both runs and pass plays. When Conner gets into the secondary and he drops that shoulder into a defensive back, it’s effective. Most of Conner’s best games involve a good number of plays where he delivers a big hit and gains significant extra yards afterward.

What to expect in 2020

First off, if Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers passing attack are backing defenders out of the box, expect James Conner’s yards per carry to go back up as well. James Conner also stands to gain more from any misdirection and complex motion the Steelers add to their offense, a defense that hesitates or takes a step in the wrong direction creates additional space, and James Conner uses that additional space better than a lot of players. Conner also will benefit from having a fullback active on the team again.

Benny Snell stands to gain from the Steelers using more two tight end sets, as they work well with zone runs. Snell should also gain carries if the Steelers have leads later in the game. His running style leads to fewer big plays than Conner’s but it also gains yards more reliably. I don’t think we’ll see Conner completely out of the game in those circumstances, but I would not be surprised to see the Steelers alternate drives between Conner and Snell if they are running the clock out. Fresh legs are a great asset in those situations.

The Steelers have a deep running back room, and the two running backs at the top have significantly different styles. If the Steelers are smart, Benny Snell and James Conner’s contrasting styles should be a big asset to the team. In 2019, when both were healthy we saw games where one would excel and the other struggle, it was largely based on whether the defense was better against zone or power schemes. If the Steelers use both running backs again, I think we’ll see similar results, and a more consistent run game because of it.