Ever since Mike Tomlin stated that the Steelers were going to run the wheels off of Willie Parker in 2007, and then accomplished it, the Steelers have been well known as a one running back team. The stats back it up, with 9 of Tomlin’s 13 seasons involving a running back with more than 250 touches, and the 4 seasons where no running back received at least 250 touches either the starter missed significant time or Isaac Redman was playing.
Most expect to see one back dominate the touches this season, and while history shows that Tomlin has used that approach most seasons, there are signs it could be different in 2020.
In 2018 the Steelers featured James Conner, backing him up with rookie third down back Jaylen Samuels, but over the season it became clear he wore down under the load. In 2019 and in 2020 the Steelers drafted feature-style running backs in Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland Jr. James Conner touched the ball 150 times in 2019, in an offense that leaned more heavily on running backs than it did under Ben Roethlisberger. Conner only played 10 games, but his 15 touches a game rate is a significant drop off from his 20.8 touches a game in 2018, and a lot less than the 24.9 touches a game Bell averaged in his Steeler career. It is even less than Rashard Mendenhall’s 15.2 touches a game from 2011, the only season a feature back started 12 or more games for Mike Tomlin without recording 250+ touches.
With Benny Snell looking good in camp, Jaylen Samuels returning after a season when he led the running backs in snaps and caught 47 passes, and with the addition of Anthony McFarland Jr. to the room as a speedy change of pace runner, I think it is more likely in 2020 that we see multiple backs get significant touches instead of relying on one back to carry the entire load.
The main runners
James Conner is still the number one back, and he should get the most touches if he stays healthy. Conner is a physical runner who excels at making big cuts and breaking tackles. The stats show that Conner has a higher percentage of failed runs than other really good runners, but he offsets those runs with big plays. Conner is a better fit for a power run scheme that gives him easy keys to read and react to. Conner is most dangerous when he gets past the linebackers and can run over defensive backs for big gains. This, and good hands, make him a dangerous receiver out of the backfield as well.
If Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game can pull defenders out of the box, expect a bounce back year from James Conner, as the more space he has, the better his second-level vision and tackle breaking serve to produce big plays, and the less chance of him getting tackled for a loss.
Benny Snell is a back on the rise. He produced as efficiently as James Conner did last year, and showed his strength as a high-traffic runner, Snell excels at finding weak points in the defense and driving for extra yards with his constantly moving feet. Benny Snell’s style leads him to have far fewer failed runs than James Conner, but with fewer big gains as well. Benny Snell is a natural fit for times when the Steelers want to grind out runs and run the clock, as Snell more reliably sets up make-able third downs for the offense.
I expect the Steelers to use Conner and Snell a lot in 2020, but not in a series by series rotation. In 2019 it stands out that in games where James Conner struggled, Benny Snell did well, while in games Benny Snell didn’t do as well, James Conner put up big numbers. i expect we will see games where James Conner gets the most carries and puts up big stats, and other games where he struggles and Benny Snell takes over as the lead back for that game. It is likely that their different styles work best against different defenses. A big question for Benny Snell is his work as a receiver, because while he seems to have good hands, his route running wasn’t good as a rookie. We will see how much that improved this off season.
The role players
Derek Watt is a special teams ace who also plays fullback. He is a smart blocker who is also stout, he can pick up a yard or two in the right running situations and he is a solid receiver with 10 catches for 152 yards in his 5 seasons so far. His yards per reception are high because Watt has made a few big plays in the passing game, his longest being 53 yards. He isn’t a reliable weapon in the passing game, but he is the kind of player that will make the defense pay, at least a little bit, if they ignore him. Watt should enable the Steelers to run more power scheme plays with James Conner and also gain some yards when teams are focusing on the rest of the offense and leaving Watt alone.
Jaylen Samuels isn’t really a running back. He was an H-Back and wingback in college, which led to him being listed as a tight end in the NFL draft. The Steelers have done a good job turning him into a pretty good third down back, but he remains a better player when he is flexed out of the backfield in his old college roles or even in the slot. He has a good knack for running in space but he doesn’t read a play like a running back, and that hurts his production, especially last season when defenses were loading the box. Samuels should be a safe bet to make the roster as a third down/receiving back and a fine special teams player.
Anthony McFarland Jr. was drafted in the 4th round in a draft where many Steelers fans wanted one of the higher drafted speed backs. McFarland Jr. brings explosive change of direction and top speed to the Steelers running back room, and from his college film appears to have really good vision as well. The big questions about McFarland are his conditioning and durability. In college he would have big games, but every time he touched the ball 30 times in a two week span his production would take a nose dive afterwards. Some see McFarland taking over the #1 job at running back by the end of the season, but I doubt we will see that, although I do expect the team to work him onto the field. His speed and ability to also line up as a wingback/flex to the slot should make it hard for teams to match up linebackers with him.
While it seems pretty easy to write down the 5 names above as the Steelers running backs, there are still a few more players fighting to knock them off the roster and take their place.
Trey Edmunds is an ace special teams player. He is reliable in several roles and has shown a knack for making plays, notably a big interception on a fake punt in a close week 10 win over the Rams. Edmunds also notched 6 tackles. As a runner Edmunds recorded the longest run from scrimmage in 2019, with a 45 yard run. He is a physical runner, but hasn’t been credited with a broken tackle in his career yet. He also caught 6 passes for 42 yards. Edmunds is a fantastic special team player that isn’t a terrible option at the bottom of a team’s running back depth chart, but the Steelers have an incredibly deep running back room with 3 of the projected top 5 being good on special teams as well. Edmunds’ odds of making the team are slim.
Kerryth White is a small and speedy back that led all Steeler backs in yards per carry in 2019. He didn’t do it by breaking long runs though, his longest run was 21 yards. Kerryth White led the team because he was the least likely running back on the team to get tackled for a loss or no gain. His film shows a player who follows blockers well, and White frequently would run behind David DeCastro for decent gains when it didn’t seem like there were any good options. Whiyte is also a north-south runner, who is more likely to turn up field through a small opening than bounce a play outside. I really liked his runs in 2019, and hoped he would have a chance to build on it in 2019, but the drafting of Anthony McFarland will likely prevent that.
Wendell Smallwood is a veteran, the oldest running back on the team (fullback Derek Watt is one year older). He has seen at least 30 touches in each of his 4 seasons in the NFL, while being a special teams player and a kick returner. He is a decent receiver out of the backfield as well. When he was brought in to camp it looked like he could push Jaylen Samuels for that spot in the running back room. Smallwood has missed a lot of time since joining the team, and that makes it very hard to unseat a returning player.
With no preseason, the odds of Smallwood or Whyte making the team are long, while the depth of the position will make it very unlikely for Trey Edmunds to make the roster.
The Matt Canada factor
Go ahead, roll your eyes. I’m bringing up Matt Canada again. Canada coached James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Derek Watt and Anthony McFarland in college, the Steelers have most of the backs in the NFL that Matt Canada coached for at least one season. With recent statements coming from Ben Roethlisberger stating that Matt Canada is impacting the run game, it is possible those running backs will have a head up on the competition due to their prior association with his offense. Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland both had success in wingback and H-back roles in Matt Canada’s offense. The Steelers used those positions sparingly in 2019, but saw a decent amount of success when they did. If the Steelers implement better use of those positions in 2020, that could spread touches around even more.
The Steelers have a deep and versatile group of running backs that should all benefit from the return of Ben Roethlisberger and the depth of talent at both wide receiver and tight end positions. The Steelers don’t have a star running back to build the offense around, but that’s not the offense they will be running anyway. If the Steelers can use their running backs effectively to their different strengths, they could be a real asset to the offense this season.
Here’s some articles that can provide more insight if you want to look deeper at the position
James Conner can benefit from Derek Watt (K.T. Smith from April)
K.T. Smith breaking down Jaylen Samuels verstility after week 4 (you can ignore the wildcat part, the rest is great)
Run game breakdown from the Jets game (includes a section on Kerrith Whyte)