James Conner is the Pittsburgh Steelers top running back. No one is questioning that. However, questions did emerge at OTAs when Conner admitted that the team is looking to get two running backs on the field more often.
Does this mean less time for Conner? Is this why they drafted Benny Snell? Is this just offseason talk? The Steelers have barely used two running backs in the same game, let alone get them on the field at the same time.
However, in this situation, there may be more smoke to the fire, and getting two running backs on the field at the same time can be a good way to cut into the loss of Antonio Brown.
STEELERS HAVE A PLAN
This was hardly surprising to Conner. When asked about sharing the field with Samuels, Conner noted that “It’s something we’ve had for a little while.” He is not wrong.
“He’s more of a runner and a catcher, as well, but I can get outside and run routes,” Conner said last week.
On the Steelers first series of the preseason in 2018, a rookie Jaylen Samuels shared the backfield with James Conner. Samuels motioned out wide, and the team threw to him. The idea is that with these two on the field, the Steelers can get teams into heavier fronts to defend the run, have one of their pass-catching backs motion to identify the defense, and then let Roethlisberger find his best matchup to exploit.
However, there are likely a few reasons that could have effected their hesitance to go to this look. The first being that the Steelers prepared for Le’Veon Bell to show up and play 16 games for them. You can call it short-sighted or use revisionist history but the team franchise tagged Le’Veon Bell with the intention that he would be a vital part of their 2018 offense. When he did not show up, it threw their plans off. If they were going to use this look in 2018 it was likely with Bell and Conner while the rookie Samuels got accustomed to the NFL.
Early into the season, the team struggled to find a rhythm with Conner, who was in uncharted territory taking starter snaps. Ben Roethlisberger was checking out of runs often, and Conner had just 32 carries from Weeks 2-4. Putting an inexperienced Conner with an unproven Samuels together to run gadget plays of some sort may have been putting too much on these players plates. If one of them could get on the field with Bell that is one thing, but the team never got to the plan that they clearly discussed at some point in camp, and decided to test out once in a preseason game.
It did not help that Conner got hurt to close the season just in time for Samuels to get his sea legs, but it is worth noting that in the meantime, Ryan Switzer was lining up in the backfield. He even finished with six rushes last year. This is something that they are pushing for.
This brings us to the coaching staff. First, while the Steelers have traditionally ridden one running back, it can be argued that this moniker is attached to Todd Haley as much, if not more than Mike Tomlin. The team transitioned to Randy Fichtner because Fitchner is known for shaping his offense around his players, while Haley typically was known for drawing up great plays, but needing fits for his scheme.
Fichtner made some noticeable changes, and some minor tweaks, but it was clear last season that the offense was evolving. With more experienced personnel, it is not out of the question to see the evolving Fichtner continue to evolve.
That is likely why he is happy to bring on Eddie Faulkner as the teams new running backs coach. What makes Faulkner stand out as a hire at running backs coach is that his last stop was as “tight ends, full back, and special teams coordinator” at North Carolina State. That is a specific group of positions to coach, and it just so happened to be the exact positions Jaylen Samuels spent his career playing at North Carolina State.
Did the Steelers hire somebody specifically to help their fifth-round pick from 2018 succeed? Absolutely not. However, he was brought in to discuss the ability to use their running backs in different ways. They liked the way Samuels was used and want to bring this ideology into the NFL.
COPY CAT LEAGUE
This may be new to the Steelers, but shifting to more two running back sets would mean that they are scouting their opponents well and understand where the NFL is heading. Using two running backs to their advantage has been something the defending champion New England Patriots have done more than their competition for years.
Last season, 50% of the Patriots’ snaps came with two backs on the field, that is second only to the San Fransisco 49ers, and head coach Kyle Shanahan, who has a reputation for using that type of offense. These two teams use these formations much more than their peers, as the Saints are the next highest running two backs just 30% of the time. For comparison, 15% of the Steelers snaps came with two backs, and almost all of those were due to full back Roosevelt Nix.
Below, you can see how the Patriots take advantage of this formation. When the Miami Dolphins see two running backs on the field, they keep their linebackers in. Tom Brady motions his backs out wide, and he has a strong route runner in Rex Burkhead lined up one-on-one in space against a linebacker. Advantage Patriots.
If the Dolphins bring in an extra safety Brady will keep James White in the backfield and run at the lighter front.
The Patriots, 49ers, and Saints are not alone in using two backs to expose matchups and make life easier for their quarterback. The Chargers offense took a step forward when they found Austin Ekeler as a compliment to Melvin Gordon rather than a backup. Matt Nagy runs a similar look in Chicago, but he wants to use three tight ends instead. Nagy stresses the need for a blocking tight end, a pass-catching tight end, and then a “move player” who can motion into a variety of roles and expose matchups due to versatility. He uses Trey Burton in this role. Nagy also drafted David Montgomery this offseason, a pass-catching back with power to compliment Tarik Cohen a pass-catching back with speed.
The Dallas Cowboys signed Tavon Austin last season with the intentions of using him as a “web player“, which they defined as a “whatever back.” While the Austin experiment did not work, the team drafted two running backs to play behind Ezekiel Elliot, one being Tony Pollard, who played a very similar role to Samuels in college.
The Rams drafted running back Darrell Henderson in the third round. When asked if this is because of the injury questions of Todd Gurley, Sean McVay noted that he is attempting to get two running backs on the field at the same time to show a different look. McVay signed Lance Dunbarin the role last season, but an injury derailed his plans as well.
WHERE DOES SNELL FIT IN?
Some of the smartest minds in the NFL are all loading up on versatile running backs, and the Steelers are right in the wave with them. That is why they drafted Snell. Samuels may be the number two running back, but he is likely to play a different role. Samuels is the Burkhead, Alvin Kamara, Burton, Pollard or Henderson role. It is a versatile, matchup identifier role.
He can backup Conner but also can compliment Conner. Of course, that leaves the Steelers needing a pure backup. Conner is a great story but has finished his last two seasons with injuries. The Steelers did not plan to be blindsided by Bell not showing up and are more prepared to run this newer look if Conner is to go down this year. If Conner got hurt Samuels could keep his role while Snell steps in for Conner.
So far, that’s been the case, with Samuels and Conner getting on the field together already during OTAs, a sure sign that the personnel grouping could hold greater importance in 2019.
“We’ve had a couple sets where it was me and him in the backfield and I was motioned out,” Samuels said. “We’re just building off from there.”
Nobody expects Samuels to make up for the loss of Brown, but it is clear that there are a vision and a plan to get him involved, not only as a runner, but to supplement a loss of targets in the passing game. There may be some serious smoke to the Steelers keeping their word and running more two-back sets in 2018. However, that does not signify a lack of faith in Conner or even an offense that is going to ground and pound more often. It just means that they are looking at different ways to use versatility to keep up in today’s NFL.
Do not be surprised to see the number of two back sets go up in a significant way in 2019.