The issues littered throughout the Steelers offense were masked for most of the season due to a dominant and opportunistic defense. They were winning games despite their offense, frequently getting the ball in opponent’s territory, not doing anything with it, and scoring because of where they possessed the ball…or the defense just scoring themselves. All of this came crashing down in primetime in Cleveland Week 11 before the now infamous conclusion of that game.
Something had to give and that something was Benny Snell. When on the field, Week 1 starter James Conner has been effective, but carrying on a theme from last season, availability continues to be an issue for the former Cinderella story. Jaylen Samuels has been given opportunities whenever Conner’s been banged up, but he’s quite simply not a productive runner. He’s useful as a passing game specialist, but after amassing just 377 yards (with 142 in one game!) on 103 career carries it’s becoming clear he’s nothing more than just that – a specialist. The 5 foot-10 inch 224 pounder, Snell, has a very no nonsense-style to his approach and he makes for a great fit on a team like Pittsburgh.
He’s built like an over-sized bowling ball. Patience, decisiveness, and going downhill is a sound foundation to build from. There wasn’t much reason to respect other facets of his Kentucky offense in college and he grinded out yardage against SEC defenses anyway. He won’t ever out-run anyone, but that’s not part of his game – and he knows it. He wins with vision and power and that’s how he runs. I’m skeptical whether he’s the type that can sustain such a style over the course of a full season, but in 2019’s case that doesn’t matter. He has just 51 touches to his name and there are only five games remaining (four in our game) on the schedule. Contact is different at this level, but he was a workhorse in college and sustained through the shorter seasons – amassing 306 touches in 2018 and 272 the year before.
The biggest issue with him for the remainder of this season is game script. Can the Steelers play from ahead? This is the risk in going down the well with him and even with a change at quarterback the concerns will remain. Wide Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is still in the concussion protocol and is also battling a knee injury. That leaves undrafted rookie free agent Devlin ‘Duck’ Hodges with Diontae Johnson, James Washington, Johnny Holton, and Vance McDonald as his top weapons in the passing game. The script to combat this team is clear – don’t let the defense beat you and force that offense to move the ball and score. This conservative approach actually benefits Snell though. The Steelers, knowing they are going to struggle moving the ball through the air, feed their young running back early and often. The opposition, not wanting to give the Steelers defense opportunities to take the game over, respond by keeping their game close to the vest. This keeps the Steelers in the game even if the offense isn’t humming along, which leads to continued touches for Snell. And what’s the most important thing in our game? Volume. It isn’t guaranteed volume in this case, but it’s highly probable. Just like he showed in his 21 carries for 98 yards against the Bengals. There wasn’t anything flashy about what he accomplished in that game, but his grinding out yardage kept them in the game before Duck finally connected with James Washington for what proved to be the game winning 79 yard score.
The upcoming schedule is riskier than the Bengals, after a rematch with the Browns they are tasked with two road games against teams that are heating up and sandwiched in between a home tussle with the Bills for what could be the inside track to a wildcard. If you have problems at the running back position you’re not going to be able to dodge risk at this point though. Among the piles of options available there isn’t one with a better chance of hitting than this one.
The week’s Flavor of the Week: Gravy. We’ve all had good gravy before and we’ve certainly had bad gravy. Sure, if the Thanksgiving you’re attending is a repeat you have an expectation for your meal. For those first timer’s it’s a different story. Like them you’re not going to know what you’ve gotten yourself into until after seated at the table. All you can do is hope for the best. Good luck, and Happy Thanksgiving!