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What does Jeremy McNichols bring to the Steelers running back room?

The Steelers added another running back this week, but what does he add to the Steelers offense?

Tennessee Titans v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers have finally reached 2022 training camp. On the day players reported, the Steelers added running back Jeremy McNichols. But what does McNichols bring to the Steelers running back room? This is the subject for 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:

There is a lot of context when it comes to looking at the statistics over the five years Jeremy McNichols has spent in the NFL. Drafted in the fifth round of the 2017 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, McNichols did not make the team and landed in San Francisco on the practice squad where he appeared in two games and only played special teams. Over the next two seasons, McNichols appeared in one game each year for the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars respectively, and only had five total offensive steps. In all, McNichols had two rushes for four yards through his first three NFL seasons, both of which were with the Colts.

It was in 2020 with the Tennessee Titans where things began to change for McNichols. Appearing and all 16 games, McNichols had no starts but had 47 carries for 204 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown along with 12 receptions for 55 receiving yards. McNichols played 271 offensive snaps along with 65 snaps on special teams.

in 2021, McNichols appeared in 14 games for the Titans with no starts where he had 41 carries for 156 yards and 28 receptions for 240 yards and a receiving touchdown. McNichols had 269 offensive snaps and only 15 on special teams in 2021. Unfortunately, McNichols was released prior to Week 18 and was signed to the Titans practice squad.

During the 2022 offseason, McNichols signed a one-year deal with the Atlanta Falcons. Unfortunately, he was released just following a minicamp. The Falcons already had running back Damien Williams and drafted Tyler Allgeier. The team also decided to convert defensive back in return specialist Avery Williams to a running back. Add in Cordarrelle Patterson, and there just wasn’t enough room for McNichols.

While the stats tell a very interesting story, what McNichols brings to the Steelers ultimately comes down to his play on the field. Let’s check the film.

The Film Line:

To look at Jeremy McNichols and what he brings to the Steelers, I wanted to look at a game where he played significant snaps, but wasn’t the #1 running back in the game. I also wanted it to be a close game so it wasn’t just him taking garbage snaps from the starter. As such, we are going to look at the 2020 game between the Titans and Texans.

2020 Titans vs. Texans, 3rd quarter, 2:29.

Jeremy McNichols is the tailback.

You can see McNichols isn’t a slippery, elusive runner. he runs straight and hard more than trying to change direction quickly and make people miss. But you can also see he has some vision and adjusts his run, just adjusts it slightly instead of making big cuts. Something you can see better from this angle.

You can see several small adjustments made before he crosses the line of scrimmage, but he isn’t someone running away from the traffic, he’s comfortable running close to his blockers.

2020 Titans vs. Texans, overtime, 8:43.

Jeremy McNichols is the tailback.

I wanted to show this play because this is a split zone run, a run the Steelers used a lot in 2021. A play I covered a couple weeks ago.

It’s important that the Steelers brought in a back who has NFL experience running offensive plays the Steelers run. To take it a step farther, the first play is an outside zone run, a key part of the Matt Canada offense that didn’t get used last season because of offensive line execution. A new OL coach and two free agent lineman that were part of outside zone-heavy teams says we’re going to see those runs in the Steelers offense in 2022.

I don’t want to put much on the success of these runs, this was a game the Titans ran all over the Texans, what I want you to take away is the type of runner they got in Jeremy McNichols.

In 2021 McNichols was used as a third down back by the Titans, and I think that’s his best usage on the Steelers. He got a lot of work for the Titans when they went into pass-heavy situations. We’re going to look at a sequence of three plays from the drive that sent this game into overtime that show why McNichols is a natural fit for the third down back role.

2020 Titans vs. Texans, 4th quarter, 0:42.

Jeremy McNichols is the running back, beside the QB.

McNichols reads the extra rusher coming quickly and meets that rush at the front of the pocket. As he makes contact he realizes the inside rushers twisted and is still able to get enough of the other rusher to keep his quarterback from getting hit with more than one hand.

You can see the process better in this clip.

McNichols messes up initially and is still able to protect his quarterback and the Titans get a completion for seven yards.

2020 Titans vs. Texans, 4th quarter, 0:36.

Jeremy McNichols is the running back, beside the QB.

This time it’s the right guard who doesn’t react to the twist, McNichols comes up to his gap and gets the player coming into it. The Titans liked to have their backs pick up blitzers at the front of the pocket, and that makes the job of determining which blitzer to pick up a tougher job. McNichols was good at it, and when he did mess up, almost always was able to correct it in time to prevent bad plays.

2020 Titans vs. Texans, 4th quarter, 0:23.

Jeremy McNichols is the running back, beside the quarterback.

This time nobody is blitzing up the middle, and McNichols is free to release into the field as a receiver. He gives the Titans a 2nd and 1 in return.

This is the work you want a 3rd down back to be able to do. Najee Harris is dangerous as a receiver, but he’s not a great pass blocker, and a true third down back would give the Steelers a lot of chances to give Harris some plays off.

The Point:

McNichols isn’t a great runner, he’s not close to being a 1b running back that would earn carries over Najee Harris. But he’s a good receiver and has shown he’s a solid pass blocker who can be trusted to read the blitz and pick up his man. He is used to an aggressive pass blocking philosophy as a blocking back, and that will likely fit well with Pat Meyer’s more aggressive philosophies in pass protection.

While Jeremy McNichols doesn’t give the Steelers a back worth of splitting carries with Najee Harris, he gives the Steelers a back who can run the ball in their system and who can be a third down back and cut into Najee Harris’s snaps that way.