The Pittsburgh Steelers used a fourth-round draft pick in 2019 to select running back Benny Snell Jr. out of the University of Kentucky. Snell was the 122nd pick overall and the Steelers had high hopes for the junior early entry who had three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in college. Snell’s yardage and carries increased every year at the collegiate level. He also scored double digit touchdowns every season in the highly competitive Southeastern Conference (SEC) and his selection was supposed to be a harbinger that the Steelers were going to return to their power running roots.
Snell’s selection and subsequent performance in his first two NFL seasons was so unimpressive that the Steelers used their first-round draft pick in 2021 on Najee Harris to repair a running game that was in bloody shambles after the 2020 NFL season. The Steelers raced to 11 wins without a loss during the 2020 season, but after limping to just one win in their last six games, including an embarrassing playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers sank to last in the NFL in rushing yards.
James Conner’s success for the Arizona Cardinals during the 2021 season served as a painful example that the oft injured Conner was not the issue. In limited duty, he rushed for 4.3 yards per carry and 6 touchdowns during the 2020 season for the Steelers. Snell started three games for the Steelers in 2020 and was the primary ball carrier behind Conner. In 111 rushing attempts, just 58 fewer than Conner, Snell averaged 3.3 yards per carry and gained just over half the yards. The offensive line was exposed during the season as Snell was often swarmed in the backfield when Randy Fichtner called his number, but in his second season, it was becoming apparent that he had no burst when he touched the ball. After two seasons, Snell had not even established himself as an effective short yardage or goal line back. After drafting Harris and replacing Fichtner with Matt Canada, the Steelers seemed to be going in a different direction offensively.
Harris carried the ball 307 times as a rookie, and seemingly never left the field. Partially, this was because of his phenomenal talent. But after injuries limited Anthony McFarland Jr. and Kalen Ballage proved ineffective, the Steelers turned to Snell as the relief for the rookie. However, unlike the previous two seasons when he carried the ball over 100 times, they only allowed Snell 36 carries during the 2021 season. His yards per carry average fell to 2.7 and for the first time in three collegiate and two professional seasons, he failed to score a touchdown.
Ben Roethlisberger changed a lot of plays late in games to bring the Steelers back in seven comeback wins, and it is worth wondering how many times runs for Snell were called and he audibled to quick passes for one of his young talented wideouts. Snell did not have significant competition as the secondary ball carrier for the Steelers since his rookie season. He had ample opportunity to take the starting job from Conner during his first two seasons due to Conner’s injuries, but he never established himself as a viable threat.
Last season, the Steelers had such little faith in their backups to Harris that Chase Claypool had the third most attempts rushing (14) during the 2021 season.
The Steelers are about a month away from their 2022 training camp and for the first time in his career, Snell will face significant competition for the backup role. Mataeo Durant despite going undrafted, signed a record contract to join the backfield competition and the former Duke running back, along with fellow undrafted free agent Jaylen Warren from Oklahoma State, are both expected to get every opportunity to replace Snell as the primary backup to Harris. It is also likely that the Steelers will bring in a veteran to compete for those touches either at the beginning of camp or work the waiver wire, if one of the rookies does not establish himself during the preseason.
One thing is perfectly clear at this point, the experiment with Snell has been a failure. It is not completely his fault; Canada’s offense is not built for a plodding short yardage back with little burst. The offensive coordinator calls a lot of RPO’s and the only thing you can count on in those sets if Snell is in the game, that it is extremely unlikely they will choose run. Snell was saddled with subpar offensive line play at times, but a change of scenery would serve him and the Steelers well. I hope sincerely he finds a home in the NFL, but the current offense for the black and gold is not it.