Kevin Gorman: When Steelers’ ‘backs-on-‘backers’ became all about Benny Snell Football
This was the moment we’ve been waiting for, the annual rite of passage in the first practice in pads for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It’s known as “backs-on-’backers” but Sunday’s edition might as well have been called Benny Snell Football.
That’s how the rookie running back refers to his rugged running style. Benny Snell often refers to himself in the third person, especially when talking about sprinting to the end zone as he did on one carry during team drills at Saint Vincent.
“That’s what Benny Snell does,” Benny Snell said. “He finishes runs.”
Mike Tomlin wanted to know whether Benny Snell finishes blocks. So, the Steelers coach called out the 5-foot-10, 224-pounder, a fourth-round draft pick from Kentucky, for the first matchup of the full-contact pass-protection drill.
“When you’re the young running back, you’re going to get called out a lot there,” Tomlin said. “Jaylen (Samuels) can relate from a year ago, just like James Conner the year before that. He’s just the back this year.”
Now, the thing about “backs-on-’backers” is it’s becoming a bit outdated, like the Oklahoma drill. Conner suffered a setback as a rookie when he injured his shoulder in the drill, limiting his availability in the preseason and putting him behind.
That probably explains why Conner, tight end Vance McDonald and inside linebacker Vince Williams were held out of the drill.
But “backs-on-’backers” is still a proving ground as much for running backs as it pass rushers because it’s an assignment many featured backs aren’t required to do on a regular basis.
Samuels was more of a receiver at N.C. State, so Tomlin was especially interested to see how he would perform last season. And the drill didn’t go well for Samuels, who improved immensely in the span of one year.
Benny Snell had been looking forward to the moment all summer. He set Kentucky’s career rushing record with 3,873 yards in three seasons but was adamant beforehand that blocking wasn’t beneath his abilities. Benny Snell even went so far as to predict he would be competitive.
“I have been protecting all my quarterbacks since high school,” Benny Snell said. “And I will show my ability when that time comes.”
When the time came, Benny Snell lost. He was beaten by inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich on the first play. Tomlin ordered them to go again, and a funny thing happened: Benny Snell won the second attempt, keeping Matakevich from the quarterback.
Later, they had a rematch. On the first attempt, Matakevich spun, but Benny Snell recovered. Matakevich won the next attempt, but Benny Snell showed the Steelers he could hold his own against a veteran.
“Whether it’s a team environment and we’re playing tackle or it’s ‘backs-on-’backers,’ I’m going to compete until the end,” Benny Snell said. “I’m going to finish my runs, and I want to show that I can be a part of this team and contribute.”
Tomlin must have liked Benny Snell’s competitive nature because he matched him against outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi in the final duel of the drill.
Adeniyi resembles James Harrison with his muscular build and low center of gravity — even wearing No. 92 — and made the team last year as an undrafted free agent out of Toledo. Adeniyi had soundly beaten Travon McMillian and Samuels earlier, so Benny Snell had his hands full.
Adeniyi won the first two reps but Tomlin called for a rematch, wanting to see what Benny Snell is all about. Neither player was willing to concede defeat in the final rep, but Ben Roethlisberger was rooting for Benny Snell, shouting his initial push was all the time he needed.
For a rookie, that’s a memorable moment.
“It gave me a little bit of push,” Benny Snell said, “and some motivation, something to work towards.”
Whether or not Benny Snell won is irrelevant. Tomlin wants to see daily improvement from his rookies and newcomers. Benny Snell called this a day to compete, not to determine a winner.
“I was looking forward to this all summer,” Benny Snell said. “This is where you finally get to show what you can really do. When the pads come on, it’s a lot of fastballs and game-like situations so I can just play football and be a football player.”
On a day he was asked to finish blocks, he showed Benny Snell Football is just getting started.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .