Tim Benz: Understanding what ‘Benny Snell Football’ should be for Steelers | TribLIVE.com
Tim Benz, Columnist

Tim Benz: Understanding what ‘Benny Snell Football’ should be for Steelers

Tim Benz
Kentucky running back Benny Snell Jr. runs a drill during the NFL football scouting combine, Friday, March 1, 2019, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

In a three-minute interview posted on Steelers.com, Steelers rookie running back Benny Snell refers to himself in the third person three times.

OK. Just so long as Benny Snell realizes that Benny Snell is still third string.

For now.

“Benny Snell football could be second (down) and 3 (yards to go),” Snell explained this weekend at rookie minicamp.

“Third and 3. It could be fourth and 2. It could be third and goal. Fourth and goal. Or it could be four-minute offense. You just have to run the clock out to win the game. It’s just feeding him. Let him run it up. He’s going to get up. He’s going to dance a little bit. He’s going to do it again. Everybody in the stadium, both teams, know what’s happening.”

That less-than-bashful explanation of what “Benny Snell Football” is — based on a question about his fourth-quarter stomp-out performance of Penn State in the Citrus Bowl in January — continued to feed what has become a developing narrative about what the Kentucky product should be for the Steelers this year: a circa 2005 Jerome Bettis closer of a running back.

I don’t buy it. At least not in 2019. For many reasons.

Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to see the Steelers draft a running back within the first five rounds of this draft. And I’m glad it’s Snell. I like him. A lot.

I saw Snell play — and play well — with Kentucky on quite a few occasions over the years. Every time I did, I walked away with the same reaction so many have had about Snell.

That’s a Steelers type of running back.

If that simple, anecdotal scouting report doesn’t convince you, maybe his 3,873 yards and 48 touchdowns with the Wildcats will.

At 5 feet, 10 inches and 224 pounds, Snell is a bruising back who can do damage between the tackles throughout a game. He can also close one out.

In theory, though, when he’s healthy, so can James Conner. At least that’s what we were all saying about Conner when the Steelers were 7-2-1 on Thanksgiving 2018, everyone was touting him for the Pro Bowl and fans were bringing “Le’Veon Who?” signs to the game.

Let’s also keep in mind: Conner is 3 inches taller and about 10 pounds heavier than Snell.

So Snell’s importance to the team shouldn’t be that of a player who can replace Conner at the end of games — a la what Bettis was for Willie Parker. Those guys had different skill sets. Parker was the speed back and home run hitter who was supposed to help the Steelers build a lead. Bettis was the body-puncher who was put in with a fourth-quarter lead to salt it away by grinding the clock.

Snell and Conner don’t represent that type of contrast. They look like slightly different versions of each other.

Indeed, I saw the Citrus Bowl. Snell was tremendous. Twenty-six carries for 144 yards and two touchdowns. I also know in the fourth quarter, he had nine carries for 30 yards, at a 3.3 yards-per-carry average, but another Kentucky running back — Asim Rose — got the first three carries of the final frame at 3 yards per clip, as well.

Right. Snell took punishment. He killed the clock. But let’s not go crazy by rewriting the importance of his acquisition into something it isn’t because of one quarter of one bowl game.

If the Steelers are guilty of failing to use Conner in that kind of capacity last year, I don’t blame Conner. I blame Ben Roethlisberger and Randy Fichtner for throwing too often. I blame Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and the Steelers defensive players for failing to secure leads comfortably enough so that the Steelers could replicate 2005 and simply hand the ball to their big back and wind down the clock.

All those factors combined into the Steelers throwing the ball 67% of the time. Green Bay was the only team with a higher passing-play percentage than Pittsburgh in 2018.

Despite Jaylen Samuels’ stellar 142-yard game against New England as the featured back last year, the Steelers don’t seem to see him as more than an emergency fill-in and a pass receiver out of the backfield. Maybe an H-back or quasi-tight end.

Snell’s true value is that of a supplement for Conner if Conner goes down with injury or needs a break.

It is that he can maintain the continuity of the run game. It’s not that he will be a change of pace for it.

Samuels can handle that role.

To me, “Benny Snell Football” should be about replicating James Conner when Conner isn’t available. Not replacing Conner late in games.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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