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Tim Benz

Tim Benz: Running back by committee for Steelers? Not so fast

| Sunday, June 3, 2018, 8:41 p.m.
Steelers running back James Conner runs with the first team during the first day of ota practice Tuesday, May 22, 2018 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back James Conner runs with the first team during the first day of ota practice Tuesday, May 22, 2018 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

We've all heard calls from disgruntled fans.

"The Steelers should just let Le'Veon Bell walk away. Don't pay that franchise tag. Look at New England and Philadelphia. Use a running back by committee!"

That suggestion is popular since those two teams made the Super Bowl last season.

Those arguing that point can make a case Bell's production could be replicated by an effective committee. The statistics below indicate that.

But I caution against the perceived ease with which those committees are assembled and sustained.

For instance, what if the Steelers let Bell sit out and rescind the franchise tag? They won't. But he could suffer a significant, early-season injury.

If that happens, let's meet your committee with the Steelers.

It's journeyman Stevan Ridley, little-used reserve Fitzgerald Toussaint, oft-injured second-year man James Conner and rookie Jaylen Samuels. Last year, Ridley, Toussaint and Conner combined for 66 touches and 286 yards.

By contrast, Bell had 406 touches. So that's a gap of 340 those three and Samuels will have to combine to make up.

"We've all got different skill sets," Samuels said after a recent practice. "I'm just trying to do what I can do. My versatility. Do whatever I can to help the team win."

To compare, the three-man committee in New England that closed the regular season and went through the playoffs — Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead and James White — had 405 combined touches, one fewer than Bell.

The threesome in Philadelphia — Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement — totaled 296 touches over 10 games (seven regular season, three postseason) after Ajayi's acquisition from the Dolphins. Projected over a 16-game regular season, that's 473 touches, one more than Bell and his backups a year ago.

So critics of Bell and fans of a running back by committee have data to say his production could be replicated by an ensemble.

Easy, right? In Mike Tomlin-speak, just throw a bunch of "nameless gray faces" in that spot.

The arrangement and sustainability of those groups are harder to execute, though.

Indeed, Blount and Clement in Philly are akin to what Ridley and Samuels could be here. Blount, like Ridley, is a well-traveled, traditional running back. Clement, like Samuels, is a multifaceted rookie who still was available on Day 3 of the draft. Clement went undrafted. Samuels was selected in the fifth round.

Yet that effective three-headed monster only came to be because the Eagles acquired one-third of it under a rare circumstance: a midseason trade of an established talent on a cheap contract.

Ajayi was dealt to the Eagles by Miami with only the remaining portion of a $670,000 contract counting against the salary cap . Plus, he was coming off a 1,272-yard season in 2016.

That wasn't the plan going in. Darren Sproles was supposed to be a key player in that backfield. However, he went on injured reserve after three games. So that was $4 million against the cap at running back the Eagles barely got to use.

As far as keeping these units together for any extended period of time, Blount left via free agency after one season to join Detroit. Lewis left the Patriots for the Titans. Sproles and Ajayi are free agents after this season.

So it's easier said than done. Success of a team collectively inflates the ease with which all of those running backs contribute to it.

Look at Detroit. They had a back-by-committee approach and were last in the league in rushing. The Bengals largely split touches between Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard. They were the worst rushing team in the AFC.

Translation? Good teams have a "back by committee." Bad teams "don't have defined roles at running back."

If the Steelers lose Bell this year or next, they are more likely to be the former than the latter because they are solid at quarterback and offensive line.

For the running backs to fill their part of their equation, though, Samuels needs to be Clement immediately. Ridley is going to have to prove he has gas in the tank like Blount did. And Conner must prove he can stay healthy and be a reliable pass-blocker.

"I needed to learn more. I needed to grow," Conner said. "I had a lot of growing up to do. I'm in the process of growing up right now."

The numbers on paper look similar. The biographies of the players involved are comparable. But for those thinking it's as easy as the Steelers snapping their fingers and saying, "Be like the Pats and Eagles," be careful what you wish for.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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