Stack ’em: Steelers Beat Falcons 19-16 as They “Remember the Faces of Their Fathers”

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Atlanta Falcons 19-16 at Georgia’s Mercedes Benz Stadium. The win came in their second road game on a Monday Night Football shortened week giving them their first consecutive victories of the 2022 season.

  • Just how and why were the Steelers able to accomplish this modest yet important milestone?

The Steelers won in Atlanta because, to borrow the words of Roland Deschain from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, “They remembered the faces of their fathers.”

Connor Heyward, Connor Heyward 1st touchdown, Steelers vs Falcons

Connor Heyward scores his first touchdown. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Steelers Remember the Faces of Their Fathers

Roland Deschain is the Dark Tower’s protagonist acting as a sort of mythical knight in the form of an old Western gunslinger (Clint Eastwood’s character in Pale Rider is a good metaphor). A fully summary of an 8 book a 4,250 pages’ series is impossible here, but whenever Roland implores something critical to his katet or posse, he does so by reminding them to “Remember the face of your father.”

Roland Deschain

Roland Deschain

“Remembering the face of your father” serves as a fitting motif for a game that saw Cam and Connor Heyward step with big plays in honor of their father, the late great Craig “Iron Head” Heyward, but that’s part of the motive driving this motif.

After the Steelers 2009 season, Art Rooney II called out his team’s inability to rely on the run in critical situations, describing rushing the football as one of the franchise’s foundations.

A week ago, the Steelers defeated the Colts because they were able to lean on backfield depth after losing their top two backs to injury.

And both players played well. But Mike Tomlin and Matt Canada didn’t hesitate to rotate in Benny Snell when necessary. They even continued to rely on Derek Watt who converted yet again in short yardage situations.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Falcons

Najee Harris looked like a first round pick vs Falcons. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Najee Harris’ 86 yards on 17 carries were impressive as were Benny Snell’s 24 yards on 6 carries. Jaylen Warren’s 5 yard carry was more economical, but it converted a third down on a field goal drive.

  • Statistics paint an incomplete picture, however.

The Steelers running backs hit holes with authority and ran decisively. On several occasions Najee Harris stiff armed his way to additional yards and as a group, the Steelers running backs forced piles to fall forward.

Pittsburgh’s running game wasn’t perfect. Matthew Wright’s 4 field goals show that the Steelers are still struggling in the Red Zone, but by relying on an effective running game, the Steelers gave themselves a chance to win.

Pickett Continues to Progress

Even since Mitch Trubisky came off the bench and sealed the win over Tampa Bay, plenty of outsiders have called on Mike Tomlin to bench Pickett and allow the rookie to learn from the sidelines.

After the Philadelphia disaster, Bill Cowher suggested Tomlin was putting Pickett’s confidence in jeopardy. Following the beating from the Bengals, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed to other rookies who’ve been shown the bench around the league suggesting the Steelers follow suit.

  • But Mike Tomlin has kept his own counsel and during these last two weeks we’re seeing why.

A week ago, Kenny Pickett stepped up and put a tough throw trhough a tight window to George Pickens on third down in what would be the game winning touchdown drive. Against the Falcons Kenny Pickett hit Pat Freiermuth 3 times on third down, converting each one.

And with Pittsburgh holding a 3 point lead and sitting on 5 minutes of clock to kill, the Steelers alternated effective running with passes to Zach Gentry and Diontae Johnson, both of which converted third downs.

  • Beyond that, Pickett’s game-IQ continues to improve.

This goes beyond not throwing an interception.  He’s also tucked and run with it when it’s been wise to do so and otherwise thrown it away rather than force a dangerous pass.

And as the read he made on Connor Heyward’s touchdown catch shows, Pickett is doing far more than just driving without denting the back bumper.

Defense Dominates, Slips, Then Stiffens

Taking a 16-6 lead into half time isn’t normally an occasion for saying that the leading team is stomping on its opponent, but that was indeed the case with the Steelers defense in the first half.

Cam Hewyward, Marcus Mariota, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Heyward sacks Marcus Mariota. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

There weren’t a lot of fireworks, save for Cam Heyward’s sack of Marcus Mariota, but the Falcons could get nothing going. Indeed, had the Steelers been able to trade one of Matthew Wright’s field goals into touchdowns, they very well may have put the game away at the half.

  • But in the 2nd half it was time for the Falcons to remember something.

They remembered that they had the trio of Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley who could run the ball. And Atlanta began letting them run the ball, daring the Steelers to stop them.

  • For much of the 2nd half, the Steelers struggled to do that.

As Atlanta played Smash Mouth football to work its way down to the Steelers 10 yard line with 7 minutes left to go, it looked like the lead to this article was going to be that the Steelers had forgotten the faces of their fathers.

But thanks to stout play by the two Cams, Cam Heyward and Cam Sutton, the Steelers defense forced a field goal. But two more players were to step up before this was over.

Harvin Hits It on a Dime, Setting Up some Minkah Magic

Cam Heyward, Steelers vs. Chargers 2015

Cam Heyward honoring his father, Craig “Iron Head” Heyward on MNF. Photo Credit: Twitter

After forcing a field goal the Steelers offense couldn’t put the game away, but thanks to the smart play by Kenny Pickett, Najee Harris and Benny Snell mentioned above, they burned off four minutes and 45 seconds off of the clock – including all of Atlanta’s time outs.

  • Pressley Harvin boomed off a 38 yard punt that Myles Bokin downed at Atlanta’s 2.

Marcus Mariota had 42 seconds to get the Falcons into field goal range with no timeouts. He wasted little time in taking a deep shot to Drake London and Minkah Fitzpatrick wasted even less time in jumping the route, intercepting his pass and returning in 16 yards before running out of bounds.

With the game on the line, Harvin and Fitzpatrick made big, smart plays – truly remembering the faces of their fathers.

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Like It or Not: “Benny Snell Football” Was Vital to Steelers Win Over Colts

There was a lot of hype and hope surrounding running back Benny Snell after the Steelers selected him in the fourth round out of Kentucky in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Why so much hype for a fourth-round pick? For starters, Snell had a very productive collegiate career, rushing for 3,873 yards in three seasons, while eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark in each one.

  • Also, Snell had a cool personality, a cool nickname — Benny Snell Football — and an infectious smile.

Lastly, Snell was drafted during the height of social media, and the bells and whistles that accompany draft choices on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram, etc. in this day and age make every single one seem like a future Hall of Famer.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts 2022

Benny Snell celebrates after scoring the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: AJ Mast,. AP via The San Diego Tribune.

Snell actually did show a lot of promise during his rookie season, rushing for 426 yards on 108 carries while filling in for the oft-injured James Conner.

Snell’s sophomore season got off to an incredible start when he rushed for 113 yards on 19 carries in a Week 1 win over the Giants. Snell came into the game for Conner, who was, you guessed it, injured, and the calls for him to become the Steelers’ new starting running back were quite audible.

Unfortunately for Snell, he never did overtake James Conner as the Steelers’ starting running back and would only carry the football 92 more times for an uninspiring 255 yards over the final 15 games of the 2020 campaign.

James Conner left as a free agent after 2020, and the Steelers decided to make Najee Harris their 2021 first-round pick, as well as their bell-cow running back.

  • Just how much of a bell-cow back was Harris in 2021? Such a bell-cow, that Snell had just 36 carries for 98 yards.
Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Najee Harris en route to 188 yards. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

As is usually the case with underperforming mid-level draft picks, the attitude of the fans toward Snell had totally soured by Year 3. Heck, it was going downhill even after 2020, as the faithful began to refer to the former Kentucky workhorse as Benny Snail.

It didn’t matter that Snell had turned himself into a valuable special teams player, the fans simply wanted him gone at the conclusion of the Steelers 2022 training camp.

  • Why did the fans turn on Snell?

He just didn’t live up to the social media hype. Also, that’s mostly how fans are. They’re a lot like college head coaches. They’ll kiss a player’s butt and charm him during the recruiting phase of the relationship, but they have no problem chewing him out and tearing him down the moment he screws up on the football field.

Snell survived the final cut in training camp, but he was dropped to third on the depth chart behind Harris and rookie Jaylen Warren.

  • Snell came into Monday night’s game against the Colts without a single carry in 2022.

Warren missed Monday’s game with a hamstring injury, but the Steelers seemed intent on using Anthony McFarland, a third-year back out of Maryland who was just signed from the practice squad, as the primary backup to Harris.

But then Harris had to leave the Colts game with an abdominal injury, and that forced Snell to be the next man up in the backfield.

Sure, McFarland had a decent night for himself in limited action, tallying 30 yards on five carries, but it was Snell who became the primary back and the workhorse to close out the game. All-in-all, Snell had 12 carries for 62 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

  • Snell looked decisive and strong during most of his 12 carries on Monday night.

What happened? Did he suddenly feel inspired? Did he feel motivated to prove the “haters” wrong?

Or, perhaps, his skills could finally shine thanks to an offensive line that has seemingly figured out a way to open holes in the running game on a consistent basis.

  • It’s critical to remember that Benny Snell came to the Steelers right as the offense was going from a strength to a weakness.
Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

Bell Snell rushing through the holes opened by the Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier

The offense has been in a rebuilding phase since 2019, complete with a total overhaul on the offensive line, as well as everywhere else, including at quarterback and offensive coordinator.

The Steelers offense has been a chaotic and controversial mess during Snell’s entire career in Pittsburgh. It’s hard enough for a first-round pick to thrive in such an environment–just ask Harris–let alone a fourth-rounder.

Does Monday’s performance mean that Snell should get a bigger role in Pittsburgh’s offense? Not necessarily. I believe Warren has what it takes to be an effective backup behind Harris.

  • I am suggesting that perhaps Snell was never as bad as you think.
  • Maybe he was just a victim of circumstance.

Maybe calling him Benny Snail was a bit unfair and uncalled for.

 

 

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Going Old School: Backfield Depth Fuels Steelers 24-17 MNF Win Over Colts, Pickett’s 1st Comeback

IF the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football were to be titled as a Friends Episode, potential names for it might be:

  • The One that Special Teams Almost Sabotaged
  • The One that the Steelers Won. But Almost Lost
  • The One where Fans Went to Bed Thinking the Steelers Lost, But Woke Up to A Win
  • The One where Kenny Pickett Led His First Comeback

All would make good choices. Hopefully, history will prove that Pickett’s first comeback to be the most relevant story line to come out of this game. But for my money the most appropriate Friendish title would be, “The One Where Backfield Depth Delivered Victory.”

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers vs Colts 2022 MNF

Benny Snell rips off a long one. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Return to Old School @ Running Back – For a Night

Generation X Steelers fans who grew up outside of the ‘Burgh often learned of Sunday’s results while reading Monday morning papers. Instead of watching highlights, we’d have to gleam our excitement for reading stats in box scores and then letting our imagination do the rest.*

When it came to running backs, you’d read names like Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie week in and week out. Then, as the 80’s progressed those names were replaced by Hoge, Williams, Carter, Worley, and Foster.

That changed in the Cowher Era and continued into the Tomlin Era to the point where depth-chart neglect saw several Tomlin Teams hobbled by an injury to a single running back.

But Mike Tomlin and Matt Canada altered course in 2022, opting for a depth chart that was 3 backs deep – with another on the practice squad.

  • The change delivered handsome dividends against the Colts.

Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs Colts

Anthony McFarland lays claim to an active roster spot. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers entered the game without Jaylen Warren. Najee Harris got the nod to start the game. His average might not be impressive, but he ran well. But even before Harris got hurt, the Steelers worked in Anthony McFarland.

When Harris went out with an injury, Tomlin turned to Benny Snell and McFarland.

The results speak for themselves. Splitting carries the duo:

  • Converted 2 critical 3rd downs on scoring drives
  • Scampered for a 14-yard run on the opening scoring drive
  • Hauled in a 12-yard reception on the field goal drive before half time
  • Opened the 1st half 2 minute drill with a 16 yard run
  • Ripped off a 13-yard run on the final/go ahead TD drive
  • Scored the go ahead touchdown

Where there times when both men were stopped in key situations for little or no gain? Yes. Can we say that “Benny Snell Football” with an assist from Anthony McFarland took over the game? No.

But, with Najee Harris out, would the Steelers have seen similar production from the 2020 equivalents of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Stevan Ridley?

I rest my case.

*This was actually quite fun, although I don’t expect you to believe me anymore than I believed my parents assurances that 1950’s Flash Gordon Serials were actually entertaining.

Special Teams Skirts with Sabotage

Almost nothing went right for the Indianapolis Colts in the first half. After Matthew Wright banged in a 25 yarder before half time, it appeared that the first thirty minutes would be a total loss for Jeff Saturday’s crew.

  • Then Isaiah Rodgers exploded for a 45 yard kickoff return.

Matt Ryan went to work, and brought his team to the Steelers 3 yard line with veteran savvy. Indy, it appeared would get on the board before the half. Isaiahh Loudermilk had other ideas, and blocked the kick.

  • Danny Smith’s special teams had atoned and absolved itself for its earlier mistake, so all good right?

Ah, No. Dallis Flowers took the opening kickoff of the 2nd half and streaked through the Steelers defenders, returning it 89 yards. Four plays later Johnathan Taylor was scoring a touchdown, getting the Colts back in the game.

Defending the Defense

Given their star power on defense, is it fair to expect that the Steelers would have and should have dominated the Colts offense? Yes.

The fact that they continued to give up long gains and only did so-so against Jonathan Taylor offer reasons for concern. The fact that T.J. Watt, three games back from injury, is only playing OK but not dominating is also a concern.

But the defense made several critical plays:

  • James Pierre intercepted Ryan’s second pass
  • Terrell Edmunds ended the next series with a sack
  • Chris Wormley made a heads up fumble recovery, reversing a would-be touchdown run
  • Arthur Maulet came up with a sack in the 4th quarter
  • Alex Highsmith sacked Ryan on the last drive, forcing a fumble

The Steelers defensive performance had its flaws, as it did against the Bengals, but it also made plays to keep the team in the game as it did against Cincinnati.

Kenny Pickett provided the difference.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Colts, Kenny Pickett's first comebac

Kenny Pickett makes his first NFL comeback win. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Pickett’s First Comeback

As acknowledged above, this game will rightfully be remembered as Kenny Pickett’s first comeback.

There are few things more demoralizing in football than leading for an entire game, only to see that lead slip away as the 4th quarter arrives. Yet that’s just the situation Kenny Pickett found himself in. And he met the challenge head on.

He completed five straight passes. OK, there was an ugly, yard losing one to Zach Gentry. But he made a critical throw on third down to George Pickens and he delivered a catchable touchdown strike to Diontae Johnson that got dropped. If Pickett’s throw to Johnson was slightly overthrown, he bought time with his legs and delivered a perfect ball to George Pickens on the 2-point conversion.

Pickens didn’t author a heroic 4th quarter comeback the way Ben Roethlisberger used to – with an effective running game to lean on he was more like an orchestrator than a field general – but Pickett rose to the occasion.

Hopefully, this will be the first of many times we can say that.

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Serious This Time? Might Mike Tomlin Actually Give Jaylen Warren More Carries?

What if I told you that a particular Pittsburgh running back rushed for 136 yards on 29 carries (4.68 yards per rush) and added another 40 yards on three receptions in the Steelers’ most recent game?

You’d take it, right? Heck, you might even think this running back deserved low-key consideration for NFL Offensive Player of the Week.

Jaylen Warren, Derek Watt, Tyrann Mathieu, Steelers vs Saints

Derek Watt blocks for Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

If you were a Steelers fan, you’d also likely assume that the running back was Najee Harris, a second-year player who couldn’t have been more of a workhorse in 2021 when he accumulated 381 total touches.

You’d be right to assume that, too, considering Najee Harris’s head coach is named Mike Tomlin, a man who’s never met a starting back he had no problem running until his wheels fell off.

Your assumption would be off, however, at least if you made it about Pittsburgh’s 20-10 victory over the Saints at Acrisure Stadium last Sunday.

  • No single Steelers running back accumulated the aforementioned stat line.

Instead, the division of labor was divided up, if you will, with Harris toting the rock 20 times for 99 yards, while rookie Jaylen Warren, a UDFA from Oklahoma State, tallied 37 rushing yards on nine carries and added another 40 receiving yards on three catches.

In the days leading up to the game against New Orleans, there was talk — right from the horse’s mouth, in fact (Tomlin’s) — that Warren could and should get a bigger role in the Steelers’ offense.

  • But that had to be just talk from Tomlin. Right?

It was just a way to motivate his bell cow running back, Najee Harris, who had struggled mightily over the first eight weeks of the 2022 campaign. Tomlin has always seemed allergic to the running-back-by-committee approach. If you don’t believe me, ask LeGarrette Blount. If you don’t want to believe Blount (and I can certainly understand why you’d be afraid to even ask him a question), you can ask DeAngelo Williams, a much better teammate than Blount. Unlike Blount, who was cut shortly after leaving the field before the end of a Monday Night Football game against the Titans back in 2014, Williams was happy with his role as the backup to star running back, Le’Veon Bell.

DeAngelos Williams proved to be valuable in 2015, his first season in Pittsburgh, when he filled in for a suspended Bell to start the year and, again, for an injured Bell over the final two months of the regular season.

Williams was again valuable and extremely productive over the first three games of the 2016 regular season when Bell was suspended a second time for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

  • But in spite of Williams’s success (and pleas from this site), when Bell was in the Steelers’ lineup, the former’s role was drastically reduced.

To reiterate, Mike Tomlin has never evolved beyond his bell cow running back philosophy.

Or maybe he has.

Harris and Warren worked beautifully together. You have to credit Tomlin for allowing it to happen, but you also have to credit offensive coordinator Matt Canada for finding a way to utilize both running backs effectively.

Is this the start of a new philosophy for Tomlin? Is he going to finally ease up on his starting running back?

I suppose we’re about to find out over the next few weeks.

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Like It or Not: Benny Snell Football Remains in Pittsburgh for One More Year

In a move that shocked anyone heavily invested in the Steelers, Benny Snell Jr., the fourth-year running back out of Kentucky, survived the team’s final round of cuts last Tuesday and will remain on the roster through at least the 2022 campaign.

Wow, right? I guess it could be a surprise if you are so emotionally connected to all things Steelers that you spent the majority of the summer rooting for Snell to leave town once and for all.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell delivers for Steelers in 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Ah, the good old days of his rookie year when Benny Snell, who the Steelers picked the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, actually had fans excited. Why? Mainly because of a hugely-productive college career that included 3,873 combined rushing yards and 48 touchdowns.

Kentucky has never been known as a college football powerhouse, especially in the powerful SEC, so for Snell to produce so well–he rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons–was seen as a good sign.

There was even talk that Snell could be a prime candidate to replace James Conner, the third-year running back with a great personal story but a bad habit of always being injured. After battling ailments over his first two seasons, Conner again missed a lot of time in 2019; Snell carried the load in Conner’s absence and nearly finished as the team’s leading rusher with 426 yards on 108 carries.

There was so much hope for Snell heading into 2020, and the goodwill continued for the second-year back after he replaced an injured Conner during the Week 1 showdown against the Giants in New York and rushed for 113 yards.

Then it all came crashing down. James Conner remained the starting running back in 2020 — and he even managed to remain healthy — while Snell only rushed for 326 yards on 111 carries.

  • Benny Snell did not look good behind a quickly aging and deteriorating offensive line.

Snell was an even less productive back in 2021, rushing for 98 yards on just 36 carries, while Najee Harris, the rookie bell-cow running back out of Alabama, tallied 1,200 yards on 307 rushes.

  • Fans had soured on Benny Snell even before the 2021 campaign and started referring to him as “Benny Snail.”

So what has happened to Snell? You can blame it on the offensive line — one that got younger and even worse in 2021. You can blame it on Snell being stuck behind Harris, the team’s first-round pick a year ago.

But if I had to pin the stagnation of Snell’s career on anything, I think the number-one suspect would be his draft stock. That’s right, despite what people like to now say about the position, it’s rare for running backs selected with mid-to-late-round picks to turn into stars.

It’s probably even worse for undrafted free agents, which is why I have a warning for Jaylen Warren, the UDFA running back out of Oklahoma State who became a training camp darling and made the Steelers’ final roster: Run!

  • No, not from defenders. Instead, you better learn to run from the critics and the haters.

They’ll be around soon to voice their opinions on you.

Why do I say that? Because it goes back to what I just mentioned: It’s rare for guys drafted with non-premium picks, or not drafted at all, to make an impact at the NFL level.

Just ask Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round pick out of NC State in 2018 who, like Snell, showed a lot of promise during his rookie season. Remember his 100 yard performance in the 2018 Steelers upset win over the Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

  • Then, Jaylen Samuels stopped showing much promise at all.

After spending three seasons with the Steelers, and then cups of coffee with both the Texans and Cardinals, Samuels is currently a free agent. Will he ever play again? It seems doubtful.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Back to Snell.

Why is he still on the Steelers’ roster? Because of special teams, that’s why; apparently, Snell is one of those special teams demons. No, he’s not a Pro Bowl-level player, but he’s really good. In fact, Snell’s special teams snaps increased to 326 last year after tallying 198 in 2020.

  • Can’t everyone play special teams? Apparently not, or at least not everyone can play them as well as Snell.

Believe it or not, not every player is there to please the fans and to become a star. Most NFL players stick around because they can do the mundane work, the stuff that doesn’t get the headlines, and do it well.

Benny Snell Football was a style of play the young running back boasted about during his rookie season. Unfortunately, Benny Snell Football has morphed into something way less sexy than we all thought it would be.

But that’s okay.

Benny Snell Jr. has managed to make it to his fourth NFL season. There are few football players on the planet who can make that same claim.

 

 

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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Running Back – Time to Find Najee Harris’ Backup

Running back isn’t the glory position that it once was. Long gone are the days when a running back could serve as the focal point of an offense, let alone a franchise. This scribe wondered aloud whether Le’Veon Bell might revive the concept of “franchise running backs.”

A half dozen years later, the question seems so hopelessly quaint that’s like suggesting black & white TV sets and rotary phones will make a comeback.

But if that’s true, its also true that lack of running back depth as much as anything else derailed the Steelers chances to get Lombardi Number 3 during the Ben Roethlisberger era. The question heading into the 2022 NFL Draft is will the Steelers heed that lesson now that Roethlisberger has retired?

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Najee Harris en route to 188 yards. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Steelers Depth Chart at Running Back: The Starter

Running back has become so devalued in the modern NFL that drafting one in the first round is now concerned to be foolhardy. A year ago Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert proved once again that they march to their own drummer when they drafted Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

One could look to Najee Harris’ 1,200 yards rushing, 73 catches and 10 touchdowns as proof that Colbert and Tomlin were right. One could bolster those arguments by pointed to the fact that the Steelers run defense was horrendous for most of the season.

  • Those are all solid arguments, but neither proves the point.

For proof that the Steelers made the right call on drafting Harris look no further than the 2021 season finale on the road against the Baltimore Ravens. Harris got injured during the first half. He worked on the sidelines, learning to carry the ball with his left hand and made at least 3 critical plays during over time to get Chris Boswell in position to kick the game winner.

Technically, Derek Watt is also considered the Steelers “starter” at fullback, but he only average 6.5% of the offensive snaps.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

Behind Najee Harris the Steelers have Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland. Pittsburgh picked Benny Snell in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft. In that time, Snell has started 5 games and rushed the ball 255 times, scoring 6 touchdown.

His rushing average has dropped from 3.9, to 3.2 to 2.7 yards per carry, although he only had 36 attempts in 2021. And in all fairness to Snell, the quality of the Steelers run blocking has declined during his time with the team.

The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft out of the University of Maryland to serve as a change of pace back. In 2 NFL season McFarland has appeared in just 13 games, carrying the ball 36 times for 116 yards. He’s also caught 7 passes for 65 yards.

The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Running Back

Lack of running back depth crippled the Steelers during the latter half of the Roethlisberger-Tomlin era. Yet, until 2021, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin showed zero inclination to altering their backfield staffing strategy. Last year the Steelers went into the season with Harris, Snell, McFarland and Kalen Ballage plus Derek Watt as their fullback.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

  • So at least the running back depth chart had quantity.

But what it lacked was quality. And the Steelers still lack that quality. Mike Tomlin has tried to staff a utility back in the mold of Eric Metcalf or Dave Meggett (oh, how I do date myself) with the likes of Chris Rainey and Dri Archer. Both failed miserably. Anthony McFarland appears poised to follow in their footsteps.

In contrast, Benny Snell has shown something and even at this stage of his career retains some “upside.” But in this writer’s opinion Benny Snell isn’t a true number 2 running back and is better suited as a number 3.

The absence of a DeAngelo Williams like player who could shoulder the load should Harris go down means that the Steelers need at running back going into the 2022 NFL Draft is Moderate-High.

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Running Back Depth is a Need, but Steelers Can (and Will) Do Better than Kalen Ballage

Running back depth, or lack thereof has been the Achilles Heel for the Steelers during the latter part of the Ben Roethlisberger era. Just how bad has the problem been?

Well, consider that after their 2014 Divisional Playoff loss to the Ravens at Heinz Field, none of their top 3 running backs, neither Ben Tate, Josh Harris nor Dri Archer ever saw another NFL carry.

A year later, the Steelers went into the playoffs starting their 5th and 6th string running backs, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman. Thin running back depth hobbled the Steelers a year later in the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, with Le’Veon Bell leaving early and DeAngelo Williams ineffective.

In 2021 the staffed quantity on the depth chart behind starter Najee Harris and that included Kalen Ballage. Did he show enough quality during that time to earn a second contract?

Kalen Ballage, Pittsburgh Steelers free agent

Kalen Ballage during the Steelers 2021 preseason. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire.

Capsule Profile of Kalen Ballage Career with the Steelers

Kalen Ballage came to the Steelers as a former Miami Dolphins 4th round pick who’d bounced around to four teams in his first 3 years in the NFL. Ballage earned a spot in training camp at least in part due to an injury to Benny Snell.

  • Here’s where memory plays tricks.

Kalen Ballage seemed like the “next man” up after Harris, but the record shows he only had 12 carries and only saw 65 offensive snaps. That was good for 36 yards in 12 carries along with 2 catches on 7 targets. If the offensive line didn’t give him a of help, Ballage did little to help himself in spot duty.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Kalen Ballage

Yeah. This is a tough one. The Steelers need depth behind Najee Harris and Ballage gives them a veteran presence. And he’s only fumbled twice in four years in the NFL. And you can get him dirt cheap. Plus he played 20% of special teams snaps.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Kalen Ballage

If you’re not convinced by the above you shouldn’t be. Kalen Ballage was a bargin-basement free agency signing for a reason. His limited sample size has been large enough and representative enough for the Steelers to see what they have in Ballage and that is: Not much.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Kalen Ballage

A key priority for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2022 off season is finding not only a number 2 but a number 3 running back to work behind Najee Harris.

It says here that, unless the Steelers stumble on the next Tom Brady with of their 6th round pick (ooh, wouldn’t that make the Melvin Ingram experience worth it), Pittsburgh will not field a Super Bowl team in 2022. But its still instructive to remember that the last time the Steelers won a Super Bowl, its running backs depth chart was four players deep.

The point isn’t that Kalen Ballage isn’t even 2022’s version of Mewelde Moore, it’s that he’s not even Gary Russell.

Expect the Steelers to move on.

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Steelers Draft Najee Harris in First Round of 2021 NFL Draft. Good Things Follow When Pittsburgh Picks RB 1st

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Alabama running back Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, making Harris the 24th pick overall. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert described the decision to draft Harris as “Easy.” Kevin Colbert explained why Pittsburgh’s pick was so easy:

Najee is as complete a back as we could hope to get at any point in the draft. Najee has the size, he has the speed, he has the athleticism. He has the run skills to run inside and outside. Also, he can also play in the passing game as a receiver, as a blocker. He’s a three-down NFL back. He played in an NFL system and really his one hidden trait is he finds invisible yards at that second level.

Mike Tomlin similarly beamed about his first round pick:

His picking vision is excellent, in terms of finding holes. He shows patience while doing that. He’s a complete back. He’s very good in the passing game, whether it’s routes out of the backfield or aligning outside the backfield. There’s not a lot of holes in his overall game.

Prior to the draft, on Steel City Insider Matt C. Steel observed, “I love his football character and desire to get better. He’s a unique young man; someone I can comfortably add to help create a championship culture.”

Those are intangibles, but they were on display during draft night, when Harris opted not to join the draft party in Cleveland, and instead watch the draft with family from a homeless shelter where he once lived.

On why he watched the draft from Oakland, Harris explained, “Us, as a family, we went through a lot of stuff. That was actually one of the places I stayed at, in the homeless shelter. I just want to make sure they know that if they need a helping hand, I’m always here.”

For my money, that tells you everything you need to know about Najee Harris character.

Najee Harris, Steelers 2021 First Round Draft Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 1st round pick Najee Harris. Photo Credit: MC NFL

Najee Harris Video Highlights

While the Steelers do make an effort to incorporate character into their draft day decisions (see guys Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt just to name two), ability on the football field is what drives their decisions.

So here’s a quick look at Najee Harris’ video tape:

https://youtu.be/2HhUdHFMGRI

Clearly, there’s a lot to like.

How Najee Harris Fits into Steelers Scheme

The Pittsburgh Steelers once proud tradition as a rushing franchise has deteriorated beyond recognition.

And before the finger wagging can start, this has nothing to do with “But ‘Steelers Football’ must evolve beyond ‘3 Yards and a Cloud of Dust.’” Yes, the game has evolved. But while you may not need to be a top rushing team to win a Super Bowl (although it certainly didn’t hurt Denver in 2015 or Seattle in 2013) you must be able to run the ball effectively when you need to.

  • And the Pittsburgh Steelers have not been able to do that since James Conner‘s injury in 2018.

Sure, there have been spits and starts, times when Benny Snell or even Jaylen Samuels showed tremendous promise. When healthy and with a strong line, James Conner can be a very good NFL running back.

  • But when you’re dead last in rushing, as the Steelers finished in 2021, a “very good” running back isn’t good enough.

The Steelers need to revitalize their running game, and that revitalization begins with the man carrying the ball. Yes, Pittsburgh needs to pick offensive lineman, preferably later tonight, if Harris is to be effective.

Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

When thinking of the line vs the back debate, remember that Jerome Bettis ran behind some pretty weak offensive lines in 1998 and 1999 as Kordell Stewart’s struggles allowed defenses to crowed 8 men in the box. He still managed 1,000 yard seasons in both years.

Yet last year in the debacle against Washington, with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron and Diontae Johnson supposedly stretching the field with Ben Roethlisberger, Snell, Samuels and Anthony McFarland totaled 21 yards rushing.

When Steelers Draft Running Backs 1st, Good Things Happen

The Steelers were expected to draft a running back, although many fans and analysts argue that the value in a running back just isn’t there are 24. Time will answer that question moving forward, but one thing is clear:

  • When the Steelers draft a running back first, good things happen.

Pittsburgh Picked Franco Harris in 1972 and the Immaculate Reception and four Super Bowls followed. And while their contributions were minimal, the Steelers won Super Bowl XIV and Super Bowl XLIII after drafting Greg Hawthorne and Rashard Mendenhall.

And even if they were ultimately disappointments, Walter Abercrombie and Tim Worley were two first round draft picks that helped the Steelers break playoff win droughts as rookies.

So welcome to Steelers Nation Najee.

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The Steelers Must Improve @ Running Back in the 2021 NFL Draft. Period.

Art Rooney II once described the running game as “The foundation of the franchise.” Rooney is right. While they may not hold the record anymore, if memory serves at some point early in the 2nd Super Bowl era, the Steelers lead the rest of the NFL in total yards rushing since the NFL-AFL merger.

  • Yet in 2020 the Steelers reached historic lows in rushing.

Drafting a running back early, perhaps even in the first round, would seem to be logical. Yet, there are no shortage of Pro Football Focus mock drafts that don’t have the Steelers addressing running back until the middle of the draft. Which begs the question, just how badly do the Steelers need to get a running back in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Steelers Depth Cart at Running Back: The Starters

The Steelers go into the 2021 NFL Draft without a starting running back. James Conner held that position in 2020, but Conner is now an Arizona Cardinal.

  • It says here that when healthy and with a strong line, James Conner was a very good running back.

Perhaps he couldn’t have been a starter in the mold of some of the Hall of Famers such as John Henry Johnson or Jerome Bettis who’ve manned the position for Pittsburgh in the past, but behind a strong line it would have been easy to see [a healthy] Conner emerging as a Steelers number 1 running back in the mold of Merril Hoge.

Alas, that was not to be.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

Fortunately, the Steelers cupboard at running back is far from empty. The proverbial “Next man up” for Pittsburgh is Benny Snell. The Steelers drafted Benny Snell in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and Snell has looked good and won praise from Mike Tomlin at times.

Still, Snell has done nothing to show that Pittsburgh can count on him developing into a viable number 1 running back.

  • And with the injuries that James Conner suffered in 2019 and 2020, Snell’s had chances.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Behind Snell, the Steelers have Anthony McFarland and Jaylen Samuels. Jaylen Samuels was a 5th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and led the Steelers to victory over the New England Patriots by rushing for 142 yards. However, Samuels hasn’t done much but show he’s a niche back since then, although on Steel City Insider, Craig Wolfley went as far as to suggest he’s the answer for the Steelers at running back.

The Steeler used another 4th round pick on Anthony McFarland during the 2020 NFL Draft. McFarland only played 2 years at the University of Maryland and is seen as both a project and as a change-of-pace back rather than someone to shoulder the full load. As a rookie McFarland looked good at moments, but never looked like an RB number 1 in waiting.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Running Back

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftShould we be so quick to write off those mock drafts that show the Steelers passing on running back in the first round? After all, of the 5 first rounders they’ve used on running backs in the modern era, Franco Harris was a home run, Greg Hawthorne was a bust, Walter Abercrombie disappointed, Tim Worley blew his signing bonus up his nose and Rashard Mendenhall didn’t have the passion to match his talent.

  • Those lessons are important, but another type of history is important here.

Speaking after the 2020 season, Art Rooney II remarked:

We’ve got to be a lot better in running. Certainly we don’t want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers being last in the league in rushing again ever. I think it’s something our coaches are focused on and we’ll be looking for ways to improve in the draft. It’s something we’ve got to fix, and we are working on it.

Art Rooney II doesn’t say a lot. But what he does say, he means.

See Art II’s comments about drafting a quarterback in January 2018 and the Steelers picking Joshua Dobbs in the 2018 NFL Draft. See Chris Boswell having to earn his roster bonus during training camp/preseason in 2019.

For all of the Sound and Fury generated by Ben Roethlisberger’s late season struggles, the astute eye will observe that his Big Ben difficulties began when the running game floundered.

If the Steelers are serious about making a final run with Roethlisberger, they need to beef up their running game, and they need to do it big time. The names of Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams, and especially that of Najee Harris have been associated with the Steelers.

Whether one of those will wind up in Pittsburgh or whether it will be someone else, the Steelers Need at running back going into the 2021 NFL Draft can only be described as High.

 

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus: James Conner – Expect the “Hometown” Hero to Leave Pittsburgh

The “Hometown Hero” and the “Underdog” are two staples of the modern sports narrative. Even though you’ve seen it multiple times, who can resist stopping and watching Hooisers when you spy Gene Hackman’s mug while sapping?

  • I can’t either. And neither can you or else you wouldn’t be reading this now, would you?

The Pittsburgh Steelers got a two-for-one deal worthy of Giant Eagle when they brought James Conner into the fold back in 2017. Conner is from Western Pennsylvania, he played his college ball at Pitt where he had twin, 1000 yard seasons and scored 52 touchdowns despite battling an ACL tear.

  • Oh, and did we mention he’s also a cancer survivor too?  

Now after four years as a Pittsburgh Steeler, James Conner is about to become an unrestricted free agent. Will we see him in Black and Gold again? Let’s take a look.

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Capsule Profile of James Conner’s Career with the Steelers 2021

The Steelers made James Conner third-round pick out of Pitt in the 2017 NFL Draft. Conner was mostly a special teams contributor in his rookie season, as the running back reps behind then superstar Le’Veon Bell were few and far between.

  • Conner appeared in 14 games before suffering a season-ending torn MCL down the stretch.

Le’Veon Bell‘s 2018 hold out paved the way for Conner to have a breakout sophomore season. As the starter, Conner appeared to pick up right where Bell left off and was on pace to tally 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Unfortunately for Conner, the injury bug bit him again late in the year and he wound up with 973 rushing yards to go along with 497 through the air, numbers that were still good enough to win him a trip to the Pro Bowl.

Injuries proved to be troublesome for Conner again in 2019, as he missed six games with various ailments and only rushed for 464 yards. Conner appeared to return to his 2018 form at the beginning of 2020 while getting off to a hot start. Unfortunately, the ground game fizzled behind a struggling offensive line and a quarterback and coordinator perhaps too stubborn to commit to it.

James Conner finished up with 721 rushing yards in 2020.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning James Conner in 2021

Talent has never been an issue for James Conner. He has it and can be a productive running back when healthy. He’s a much better athlete than people give him credit for and probably the only running back currently on the Steelers roster capable of being the type of weapon Le’Veon Bell was in his prime.

And remember, Le’Veon Bell broke Steelers single game regular and playoff rushing records that neither Hall of Famers John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis ever touched.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning James Conner 2021

The key phrase in the previous paragraph is “when healthy.”

That’s always been an issue for James Conner, who also suffered a torn ACL in college. The shelf life for most running backs is pretty short to begin with. Do the Steelers really want to give Conner a raise in free agency if they can’t really trust that he’ll be healthy enough to play a full 16 game season, let alone fulfill his new deal?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Conner in 2021

As a college hero who battled and defeated cancer while attending the University of Pittsburgh, Conner’s story is a great and inspirational one. He’s not a hometown hero strictly speaking, having grown up in Erie, Pa, but I think the native Pittsburghers now consider him one of their own.

  • Everyone knows Conner’s story and most root for him to succeed.

Having said all that, I think it’s in Conner’s best interest to go somewhere where he’s not James Conner the hometown college hero and not James Conner the cancer survivor. He needs to go somewhere where he’s just James Conner the running back. As for the Steelers, I think it’s best they move on and look to upgrade at the position either through free agency or the draft.

Expect that to happen.

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