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.
Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense
The Steelers offensive identity has been built on efficiency. With Ben Roethlisberger coming off of elbow surgery, they wanted the veteran quarterback to reinvent himself. The good news is that Roethlisberger has done that and then some. Roethlisberger gets the ball out faster than any other quarterback in the NFL. With an emphasis on the quick passing game, the Steelers have been throwing it to their bevy of playmakers to a large degree of success for most of the season.
However, over the past two games, the offense has suddenly gone stagnant. Scoring just 17 points on Monday against the Washington Football Team, the Steelers offense is trending in the wrong direction at the worst time. Without a running game in sight, the passing game has been the Steelers’ crutch. Still, it is something that has become predictable. Washington edge defender Chase Young said that “Baltimore exposed some things” and that the defense could pick up on the Steelers tendencies as a whole.
It is that predictability that is the root cause of the issues the Steelers are having offensively. To the running game and short passing game, everything comes back to their inability to be unpredictable and fool the defense. Perhaps the most important of these predictable tendencies is the Steelers’ affinity to run short horizontal routes only. Bubble screens, drags, quick slants and ins, and smoke routes are essentially the Steelers’ route tree at this point. Every now and then there is a five yard curl over the middle of the field.
That is something that Randy Fichtner hangs his hat on. Ever since becoming the offensive coordinator, he has made it point for the Steelers to get their receivers in open space, create havoc, and let the playmakers do the work. In the modern NFL, it has a lot of great things to it. The fruits of it were shown in games against Tennessee, Cleveland, and Philadelphia earlier this season. The issue has become that Fichtner goes horizontal too much in games. Out of any bunch set, there is at most five route combinations the Steelers are running. Knowing they will try quick passes, teams are just dropping eight defenders into coverage and clamping down on it.
So, what is the natural adjustment to that? Well, it is to take the fight to them and attack them vertically. Now, the type of vertical attack they have is somewhat limited. It is essentially relegated to heavy and pray bombs. The Steelers also refuse to attack the middle of the field. They have only 11 passing attempts for 15 or more yards in the middle of the field this season.
Attacking the entirety of the field is one of the easy fixes for the Steelers. The middle of the field is ripe for the taking given what defenses are throwing at the Steelers. It is a lot of single-high coverage, so if they can isolate someone like Chase Claypool or JuJu Smith-Schuster on that single-high safety, it could be a big play. The Steelers have the weapons to really go after it in the middle of the field.
The caveat coming with a more oriented traditional vertical passing game would be the inaccuracy of Roethlisberger himself. There is a reason that the Steelers are hesitant to throw 40 yard bombs. It is because Roethlisberger’s accuracy is all over the place. Every now and then he finds paydirt, but it is a deep ball that far from what it was prior to his elbow surgery. The good news is that while Roethlisberger may struggle with those extremely deep passes, he can still put a lot of velocity on the ball and push it.
With an arm like Roethlisberger’s now, the Steelers should be trying a different vertical attack. They must go back to what they once did under Tood Haley, and even more so earlier this season. While they will have to toss the vertical heave every now and then, the Steelers can get away with working on the vertical plane. That means a lot of out, curl, comeback, dig, and seam routes. Those throws outside the numbers with guys like Claypool and Diontae Johnson could really be the adjustment this team needs.
Opening up the offense for JuJu Smith-Schuster to run up the seam a bit more and make some combat catches would be a welcome sight. Even running a skinny post or corner route with Eric Ebron seems ideal. Roethlisberger does not have the accuracy on those heave ball types anymore. He does have the accuracy in the 20-25 yard area to still push it to all areas of the field. It is that key distinction that the Steelers must take advantage of to work open this offense. The Steelers have the personnel to do it, the question is just will they do it.
With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start
The Steelers have charged out to a 2-0 start to the season thanks to the stellar defense and the return of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which has elevated an already talented group of receivers that also added Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron to the mix this offseason.
At least, that’s how the narrative has gone so far. And with good reason. The Steelers do have a stellar defense, and Roethlisberger has been a spark, with five touchdowns in two games and a completion percentage (68.5) and passer rating (107.1) that would both be career highs.
But the Steelers have also done a surprisingly strong job of running the football. Through two weeks, there have only been 10 running backs to rush for over 100 yards, and the Steelers have two, with Benny Snell clearing the century mark against the New York Giants and James Conner returning from injury to do so against the Denver Broncos.
They’re the only team with a 100-yard rusher in each of their first two games and have increased their percentage of run plays from 33% in 2018 to 42% this season. Roethlisberger said part of that is that the Steelers have been operating with a lead in the second half and looking to run some clock by running the ball.
“Yeah, I think it’s just the way the games have played out,” Roethlisberger said. “We don’t go into any game saying, OK, here’s our percentage of run/pass. We go into the game trying to win it. I’ve just been happy at the end of games, we’ve been able to utilize the four-minute offense both games. I think that’s something that we take pride in. Because when we say we have to run the ball, it doesn’t mean we have to run it more. We have to run it more effectively. And running it in the four-minute offense is effective running.”
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin also highlighted the success of the four-minute offense as the Steelers ran out the clock with the football in both victories.
“We have been able to close games out via the run,” he said. “We have been able to possess the ball in four-minute offense. We’ve had a lead in the latter part of the game and have been able to close the game out and maintain possession of the ball primarily via the run. I like that aspect of it. We are still working and growing in terms of being able to do all the things that we want to do, not only in that area of the game, but in all areas of the game. But I think it is a good start when you have your four-minute offense rolling and you are able to possess the ball via the run and preserve a lead at the end of a football game.”
Of course, there are many mouths to feed when it comes to the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger’s number of quality targets in the passing game, plus what looks like it could be a two-headed backfield between Conner and Snell is a lot of talent to go around and there’s only one football.
Roethlisberger said striking a balance is easy, though, at least when the team is 2-0.
“You look at the win loss column,” he said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s getting the ball. It doesn’t matter how many times we’re running or throwing it, it doesn’t matter who’s getting their stats, it’s just a matter of if the team is getting that one stat that’s most important. And that’s a win.”
Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way
The Steelers will be throwing their rookie guard into the fire on Sunday. With injuries to both David DeCastro and Stefen Wisniewski, the Steelers are being forced to throw fourth-round rookie Kevin Dotson into the starting lineup. While his college tape looks good, and Steelers Now concluded he could have starting upside, this is early for him to be starting. Dotson missed a good portion of training camp with a knee injury. Not only that but with such limited time, is he really ready to play this early? The few reps he got versus the Giants may be able to tell the story.
There were two key plays that showed Dotson might just be ready right out of the gate here, even despite the “angst” that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have described at starting Dotson this week.
The first play was this rep against Dexter Lawrence. Now, Lawrence is an explosive athlete. Converting speed-to-power is something he does really well. With powerful hands to jolt pass protectors as well, he can be a real problem, especially for a young guy like Dotson. However, while Dotson initially gets hit slightly back, he does a great job of engaging his core strength and anchoring down. It is obvious how strong Dotson is on the football field, but it is not just in his arms. It is his legs and core that allows him great body control to stand his ground. Other than his dependable anchor on this play, Dotson has fantastic hand placement. His hands are placed inside of Lawrence’s shoulder pads and he is able to control the point of attack here as a result. It was all through winning the leverage of the rep where Dotson was able to get those hands under Lawerence’s pads. A true people-mover it is no surprise to see Dotson play with excellent leverage.
This is a fantastic pull by Dotson on this play to spring Benny Snell. He shows off some hip stiffness, but overall moves pretty well to reach the end here and seal it off. Dotson is the very definition of mauler that plays with violence and power. The end gets shocked by Dotson’s pull and can not get free of his grasps in time to make a play on Snell. This is textbook teach tape for pulls, and while it is not flashy, it is good stuff from Dotson.
Back in training camp after he had just come back and was facing some first team competition, Dotson made sure to let it known he was up to the task.
“I feel like I can make an impact no matter what happens,” Dotson said.
Now with a flurry of injuries, it will up to Dotson to handle Jurrell Casey against the Broncos as the Steelers try to improve to 2-0. If the limited tape says anything, Dotson might just be up to that task.