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Double Trouble? Steelers Working Conner, Samuels Together at RB as Part of NFL-Wide Trend



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.


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.


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.


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.

Steelers Now analyst. IUP Alum. Pittsburgh native. Steelers and Pirates critic, Penguins homer. Covers NFL. Follows NFL, NCAAB, NBA, MLB, and NHL. Writes about the Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Steelers, and other relevant NFL news.


Film Study: Kevin Dotson Has Starting Upside



The Steelers were going to address the offensive line at some point in the 2020 NFL Draft. Whether that be in the early portion of the draft or the mid-rounds, they were going to do it at some point. Thus, they did in the fourth round as they selected combine snub and lifelong Steelers fan Kevin Dotson.

As one of the best offensive lineman in the Sun Belt, lots of draftniks were hot on Dotson’s trail and were fans of him. It was a pick that makes a lot of sense with the Steelers’ offensive lineman types, especially on the interior at guard. Dotson is a mauler. He is nasty and brutal to his opponents. There is no denying what he does upfront on the offense. The question is how well does he do it? Can he start?


What stands out about Dotson’s tape immediately is that this is a guy who is strong and moves people of their spot with his strength. His upper body strength in particular is great.

A play that showcases that strength is this play against Appalachian State. The net gain of this play is not in Dotson’s favor, but his individual effort on this play is really strong. He moves the end right off his spot with well-placed hands and a ton of power in his upper body. As he engages the end, he comes in low and wins the leverage battle, which gives him the hand placement and the ability to drive through the defender’s chest. That is how he got this movement and opened up the edge.

It all comes from the aggressive mentality that was instilled with Dotson. This is a twist and Dotson was having absolutely none of it. Dotson’s hands are heavy and with those strong punches, it allows him to stun pass rushers on twists and even head up. Plays like this are just one representation of that mentality that he carries around. With smooth footwork to mirror the twist, Dotson allows the quick pass to be executed and shows a little nastiness in the process.

One of the main concerns for Dotson coming out was his athleticism and this his ability to climb to the second level. Listen, he might not be the most flexible guy or even the greatest athlete out there, but this is a pretty smooth rep from Dotson. His feet are quick and efficient with no false steps and he does a great job of framing his blocks and engaging with second-level defenders. That means he can work in a zone running scheme just as well as he can in a gap running scheme. With the Steelers moving to a more hybrid running scheme approach, that versatility is really nice to have. A caveat with Dotson is that there are some grip strength issues. He can get his hands inside and then lose his assignment a little too early, but all in all this is a nice rep.

As a guy who needs to execute a pull or a wham block, expect Dotson to be up to the task. This is a great rep. From the release off the line with that smooth footwork to how he engages this block and makes a really strong block on a good linebacker in Dylan Moses, Dotson shows out on this play. He engages this block with a low pad level and puts his hands right inside the chest plate of Moses. That seals off the middle and allows this run to break free for a good gain. This is an NFL level rep here.

The other key in pass protection for Dotoson is if he is asked to take a guy on one-on-one without help, can he be trusted? The answer is absolutely. It comes back to his strong hands, leverage, and smooth footwork to mirror pass rushers who try to break free. With a strong anchor and good balance as well, Dotson can handle strong bull rushers that come his way and stay on his feet and divert them. On this rep above he does a great job of getting his hands inside and as the pass rusher tries to knock his hands off, he resets them and keeps the defensive tackle locked up. Really good rep to defend against potential counters as well.


There really is not a lot of opportunities this year for Dotson unless he just wows that coaching staff. The shortened offseason program in addition to the addition of Stefen Wisniewski, who is no slouch in his own right, is going to make Dotson a guy who will have a hard time starting this year.

Instead, he is going to get a year to be a strong depth guy at guard. His brother is teaching him center as well, so that can add to his versatility and value on the offensive line. However, after 2020, all bets are off on this guy. Dotson has all the tools to be an NFL starter and it would not shock me if he is the starter at left guard in 2021 when everything is all said and done. He has that potential.



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Film Study: Anthony McFarland is Big-Play Threat Steelers Needed



It was expected that the Steelers would leave the 2020 NFL Draft with a running back to bolster their backfield, so it was no surprise when they selected Anthony McFarland in the 4th round of the draft. They did so after passing on JK Dobbins and Cam Akers with the 49th pick. While they certainly did not necessarily need a running back, there were depth questions, especially with James Conner missing far too many games over the past two seasons.

So, with McFarland now on the team what will the team be getting out of the former Maryland rusher?

The Steelers will be getting an electric runner who busts angles and adds something that the Steelers did not have in the backfield prior to the draft — a home-run hitter that can take any carry to the house whenever he gets the ball in his hands.

McFarland’s Film

The immediate reaction to the pick is that this is not a normal Steelers pick. Rarely do they actually go out and get pure speed backs. Usually, they get bigger, slower backs like Benny Snell, James Conner, and others in the past that have followed that mold. In the past when they did touch speed backs, it was smaller, leaner guys like Dri Archer and Chris Rainey. However, McFarland is a complete outlier. He is not like those other speed backs, in fact, he runs pretty tough when it comes down to it.

This is a guy that is going to grind out yards. At 5-foot-8 and 208 pounds, McFarland is a stocky build that is just about perfect for a running back his size. Here he is against Temple absolutely grinding out yards due to his stocky build and leg strength. That compact lower body allows him to fight for extra yards and often times, fall forward to get as many yards as possible. It also allows him to add top-notch contact balance to his arsenal. One of the key reasons why McFarland has that home run hitting ability is because he slips tackles with ease.

Really, this is a dude that does not mess around in the open field. He can use his agility to get past people (more on that later), but can absolutely run right through defenders as well. Here against Michigan, McFarland delivers a straight-up stiff-arm to the Michigan defender to shed the attempted tackle. It is another move in his arsenal of open-field moves, and it is an effective one at that.

This right here is a great read on the fly by McFarland. Maryland runs power here and ideally, the end and alley are sealed off so McFarland can sprint right through and use his speed to take this one all the way. However, the overhang safety makes a nice run fit and forces McFarland back inside. What makes this a good display of Vision by McFarland is that he reads the leverage the linebacker has to the outside of his lineman and once he sees the outside leverage of the linebacker, he makes a smooth cut back inside. He then accelerates and gets extra yardage. That is him creating yards with his eyes and reading the flow of the second-level.

That lateral agility is a legitimate part of McFarland’s game. This is counter and all the reads are entirely on the front side of the play, but with a blitz to backside, McFarland feels it and slides away from the would-be tackler. This is all about vision and footwork. With the footwork McFarland possesses, he is able to almost glide on the football field and make smooth, sharp cuts to create yards. In addition, his stop-start burst allows him to hit holes quickly and fast to maximize yards, just as he does here.

This would not be an article about Anthony McFarland if there was not a long touchdown run in this article. It also would not be a proper analysis article without mentioning his 2018 game where he terrorized Ohio State on the ground. This is one of those big plays he struck against a talented Buckeyes defenses. On this play, there are a few things that McFarland shows off. The first, and most obvious, is the long speed. This guy legitimately has 4.4 speed. It is one of the main reasons the Steelers drafted him anyways. In addition, he shows off that contact balance again by shedding a wimpy tackler. His feet never stop moving as he engages that tackler. Even more impressive is how quickly he hits top speed after breaking that tackle. However, another key point to this play is that this is a completely different type of running scheme. This is an outside zone play. It shows that McFarland is not a one-scheme back, but a versatile back in that mindset.

McFarland’s Outlook

In reality, McFarland may not get a ton of touches in his first-year. The shortened offseason in addition to the Steelers’ mentality of having a lead back type is one of the reasons he may only touch the ball around 75 times. Still, as a complement to the powerful James Conner, McFarland fits that role perfectly. The only other guy with anything remotely close to McFarland’s skillset is Kerrith Whyte, but even he did not get enough touches last year to prove he will stick on the roster.

McFarland, thus, becomes the primary speed back and big-play element out of the backfield that the Steelers have not had since Willie Parker. It really has been that long. McFarland’s tape is good and he should be able to live up to the hype. His big question marks are the receiving game and pass protection, however, and in order to get a bigger role in the offense he will have to prove himself competent in those areas.

*You can also learn about McFarland by watching Mike Asti’s talk with Adam Zielonka of the Washington Times.*

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2020 NFL Draft

Film Study: Alex Highsmith Brings Juice to Steelers Pass Rush



The Steelers surprised more than a few people by taking an outside linebacker in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Coming into the draft, it was a position that could be addressed due to the looming contract of Bud Dupree, who is on a one-year rental contract on the franchise tag. Seeing as the Steelers have a plethora of contracts to take care of in the next year, Dupree may be on his way out. Even then, with Anthony Chickillo gone, the Steelers needed to address the depth and get a rotational pass rusher.

All of that is taken care of now as they selected Charlotte’s Alex Highsmith, who was an uber-productive pass rusher who was a standout all week at the East-West Shrine Game in Tampa. Given what he has put on tape, his selection is not a surprise and the Steelers hit a home run with the pick of Highsmith, who put up quality tape not just against teams in the Conference USA, but also against a top team such as Clemson.

Highsmith’s Tape

The one developing area of Highsmith’s game is his counters and pass rush moves. There are a few moves that he employs to win and starting last season, a spin move was one of the ways he won inside as offensive tackles overset for his speed rush. Highsmith has a few defining traits to his game, but there is no doubt that his explosive first step is a key one. He gets off the line and up the arc in a hurry because of his explosive first step. The good thing is that he is not simply a speed rusher. While that is how he wins most of the time, he can pull off nifty moves like this. Clemson tackle Jackson Carman oversets expecting the speed rush from Highsmith, but instead, he takes his pass rush angle up the arc and bends it back inside on that spin move.

One thing that was telling on the Clemson tape was just how much they prepared for Highsmith. Carman is a good tackle and a potential first-round pick in 2021, but Highsmith gave him fits all day long. They chipped Highsmith with tight ends and kept running backs in just in an effort to try and stop him. This play above shows off his first step. He has rocket shoes on his feet on this play as he beats Carman to his spot. If not for a quick three-step drop and throw from Trevor Lawrence, this may have been a sack for Highsmith off his explosiveness alone.

Run defense is a part of Highsmith’s game that is inconsistent, but as his hand usage has improved, so has his run defense. This play is one where he shows he can take advantage of a tackle’s mistakes. Carman is flat-footed and lunges towards Highsmith rather than driving through his chest, allowing Highsmith to be nifty and zoom right on by here. That is part of the reason his explosiveness causes so many problems. However, he does a nice job of executing a chop-rip to slice down the line to make a tackle. Based on the film, the chop-rip combination is Highsmith’s go-to move.

Here is the chop-rip again, this time for a sack. Highsmith does a great job of nailing his hand right inside the tackle’s pad, which is almost always certain death for a tackle. The ability to rip around the edge and make this arc tight is something that Highsmith is really good at doing. Still, this is more about his burst and hand usage combination that allows him to win.

This is exactly how Highsmith recorded most of his sacks, however. When the Steelers drafted him, they likely bet not just on his improvement as a strategist with his counters and moves, but his combination of burst and bend to destroy set angles and win around the edge with his speed rush. He does that extremely well here as he sets his pass rush angle up as if he was going to come here with some power move such as bull rush. However, his lateral agility allows him to cut back outside and use his explosiveness to get the angle. After that, it is all flexibility in his ankles. The ankle flexion he gets is really great on that lead leg. It bends and leads under his shoulders and hip to allow him to dip and reduce his surface area on his way to getting this sack.

Highsmith’s Overview

The Steelers’ selection of Highsmith may have been their best pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. His combination of burst and bend makes him a perfect fit for the 3-4 outside linebacker scheme. With the Steelers rushing their outside linebackers more than ever, Highsmith is a great fit to provide more pass rush upside in the rotation than anyone since Jason Worilds. With his improvement in his pass rush plan and hand usage, HIghsmith could be a starter in 2021 if Dupree walks after the 2020 season.

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