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Steelers Vertex: What does Kalen Ballage bring to the running back room?

As the new player in the mix, what does Ballage offer to the Steelers that they may be missing?

New York Jets v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

As the Steelers fill out their 2021 roster, there are some players added into the fold who Steelers Nation may not be over familiar with. One of those players in running back Kalen Ballage. In order to do our best to help Steelers fans get as much information as possible, Ballage will be the subject of this week’s Steelers Vertex.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

One of the more interesting numbers fans could focus on when it comes to Kalen Ballage is the number three. In three NFL season, he’s played for three different franchises. With his first two years being in Miami, Ballage split his 2020 season between the New York Jets and the Los Angeles Chargers.

Coming in with eight career starts, Ballage will be tied with the most starts at running back on the Steelers with Jaylen Samuels. Benny Snell Jr follows them up with five starts in his two seasons.

In his two years in Miami, Ballage rushed for 191 yards on 36 carries and a touchdown his first year, one of which was a 75-yard run. This helped his average come to 5.3 yards per carry. In his second year with the Dolphins, Ballage more than doubled his carries but had less yards with 74 attempts for 135 yards and three touchdowns. His 1.8 yards per carry in 2019 was uninspiring and he found himself traded to the Jets at the end of 2020 training camp for a seventh-round draft pick.

Only lasting three games in New York, Ballage was added to the practice squad of the Los Angeles Chargers after his release. After being elevated from the practice squad once, Bellage was signed to the active roster and appeared in eight games with two starts and 290 rushing yards on 88 attempts with three touchdowns.

When it comes to salary, Ballage counts less than $1 million for the Steelers for the 2021 season, and currently is not guaranteed a spot to even make the active roster. How much of a chance Ballage has to fit in with the Steelers will need to be determined based on the film.

The Film Line:

I looked at Kalen Ballage’s game where he played the most snaps, Week 11 of 2020, when Ballage’s Chargers played the Jets, where he was the Chargers primary running back. Ballage showed both his strengths and weaknesses in that game.

First off, Ballage in the run game.

2nd quarter, 15:00. Kalen Ballage is the running back.

Ballage’s film has a good number of plays where there was little opportunity to even get back to the line of scrimmage. That’s one part of the reason his average per carry was so low. The center gets beat badly here, and the end to the right side of the screen drives the guard past the ball. The run blocking was frequently worse than what we saw in Pittsburgh. Ballage had 9 rushes for a loss on the season, I watched every one, and they all involved free defenders in his run lanes, and only one looked like he missed a chance to escape.

1st quarter, 0:08. Kalen Ballage is the running back.

Ballage’s best film is when he is setting up blocks to create run lanes. You can see how his fake cut inside helps set up the blocks that allow him to gain 9 yards. While Ballage shows this ability, it doesn’t show up consistently.

3rd quarter, 0:19. Kalen Ballage is the running back.

On this run, Ballage cuts upfield and it buys time and creates the angle for the guard to get off the combo block and block the linebacker #44. Ballage doesn’t take advantage, staying inside where he is tackled after gaining 2 yards.

From this angle you can see the opening he had to break this run outside.

Ballage stays behind the center, and doesn’t see the opening his guard is creating. In the previous play where he did take advantage of the blocking he set up there is more space, on this play there is more traffic and Ballage puts his head down and follows the center.

Kalen Ballage shows some patience and vision, but not consistently. What he consistently shows is he is a runner that will take what is given him, and when he faces trouble is more likely to put his head down and run into it than try to dance out of it. He doesn’t break enough tackles to make that run style work great in the NFL, but you can see he frequently falls forward or pulls smaller defenders for a few yards.

With less production in congested running it may give the impression that Ballage is an open field runner, but that doesn’t show up either.

1st quarter, 1:05. Kalen Ballage is the running back.

A simple pass to the flat, it’s 1st and 10, and in the first quarter. There’s no reason to go out of bounds here, but Ballage doesn’t even try for more than the three yards he gets here. Once he gets moving in one direction, that’s his path as he’s not a runner who changes direction at speed.

2nd quarter, 4:52. Kalen Ballage is the running back.

Ballage doesn’t show good open field running at all, he doesn’t evade tackles, and he doesn’t break them. On this play he doesn’t even take a good angle to the sideline, he just runs into the first defender he sees.

2nd quarter, 14:26. Kalen Ballage is the receiver farthest to the top of the screen.

The New York Jets had Ballage on their roster in 2020, cutting him after a game where he missed blocks in pass protection and ran out of bounds on a play where he could have picked up the first down. You can see they respect him on the outside. Ballage moving outside pulls a safety down into man cover and leaving a single high safety deep. The cornerback covering Ballage plays him tightly, and the combination of both of those things create space for this run and catch for a touchdown.

1st quarter 7:54. Kalen Ballage is the running back.

Ballage does a great job getting to the front of the pocket to engage the blitzer. He doesn’t waiting for the rush to come to him, but intercepts it as far away from his quarterback as he can. The rest of the block isn’t great. Ballage is easily driven back to his quarterback, forcing a quick throw that falls incomplete.

The Point:

Kalen Ballage isn’t a power runner, he breaks tackles about as often as Jaylen Samuels and his 2.2 yards after contact is Samuels’ level also. He shows decent vision finding his first hole, but then largely runs straight until he’s pulled down. In open field he is a straight line runner, and ends up just running out of bounds or into a tackler. His best plays from his career so far were screen passes, where he could set up blocks in a less congested field and use his straight line speed to eat up yards.

Ballage has somewhat of a Willie Parker running style, but Willie Parker was faster and had much better acceleration. Ballage as a running back brings a guy that can follow a lead blocker or find a hole in outside zone, then run straight at that opening.

Where Ballage is intriguing is as a wingback, a position that would allow him to run with clearer lanes and also make use of his receiving ability, and in Matt Canada’s offense he could see a good bit of screen pass opportunities.

That value is very specialized, and his play as a more traditional running back isn’t clearly better than Benny Snell or Anthony McFarland. It’s possible Ballage’s chief value to the Steelers is a player who has experience playing different positions in college at Arizona State where he lined up as a receiver, running back, wingback and wildcat quarterback (his best spot in college). That brings value in training camp when the offense is being installed. If Ballage makes the roster, it will likely be more of a bad sign for the player whose spot he takes than a positive sign for Ballage.