Monday night’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants went pretty much as expected, as Pittsburgh’s defensive line dominated en route to a relatively easy win. One surprise that did arise from the game, however, was Benny Snell’s terrific performance as a ball-carrier. Rushing for 113 yards on just 19 carries (5.9 yards/attempt), Snell looked confident and decisive as a runner, exploiting relatively light defensive boxes in the wake of starting running back James Conner’s ankle injury.
With Conner doing little on his six attempts before the injury, Snell’s performance has ignited legitimate conversations about whether or not should be the team’s primary running back going forward. Ultimately, it’s hard to argue with this train of logic, as Snell edges Conner in a surprising amount of areas.
Yes, it’s only been one game, and yes, Conner got hurt, but Snell was clearly the better back on Monday night.
Rushing for 26 yards over the expected total (via Next Gen Stats) on Monday—good for third best in the league—Snell showed tremendous patience and physicality against New York, also showcasing improved burst and explosion since his collegiate days at Kentucky.
Averaging a mediocre 3.9 yards and 101 attempts as a rookie, Snell didn’t do much in his first season, lacking creativity as a runner and mainly just doing his job in a serviceable manner. Conner wasn’t much better, however, as he also rushed for a mediocre 4.0 yards a carry on 116 carries.
The trait that makes Conner stand apart from Snell is his pass-catching ability. Snagging 31 more balls than his counterpart in 2019, Conner has proven to have natural hands, strong spatial awareness, and comfortable route-running skills. Snell, meanwhile, has yet to show he can be a reliable presence in the passing game after rarely catching anything at Kentucky or in Year 1 with Pittsburgh.
What Pittsburgh has probably missed most about Le’Veon Bell, besides his natural patience and vision, is probably his pass protecting ability. A stalwart in his regard, Bell was exceptional at identifying blitzes and giving Ben Roethlisberger much needed extra time in the pocket.
Neither Conner nor Snell has that same ability, although both are still more than respectable in his regard. Willing to muck it up and use their physical frames in pass pro, each has hiccups from time to time, but both always give the much-needed effort and aggressiveness that’s required.
Both Conner and Snell faced an average of roughly seven men in the box last year, which means that neither had an advantage when it came to stacked boxes. Pittsburgh trusted Snell a bit more in these situations, however, giving him three more red zone touches despite being out-touched by Conner 155 to 112 on the season as a whole. With more natural leverage then Conner, Snell rewarded the team by proving to be very solid in this regard.
The main knock on Snell coming out of college was his long speed and lack of athleticism. Running a 4.66 40-yard dash and jumping 29 1/2 inches, Snell tested extremely poorly at the combine, which is likely one of the main reasons he dropped to the fourth round on draft day. Interestingly enough, Conner actually tested just as badly (ran a 4.65 and jumped 29 inches), however, despite the media rarely making mention of his poor numbers in this regard.
One of the youngest second-year players in the entire league, Snell being just 22 years old is a big bonus when it comes to his future outlook. Although Conner is still just 25, this youthfulness gives Snell a boost, especially when you consider Conner’s injury history and the fact his production has trended downward over time.
Conner and Snell possess similar physical profiles and athletic traits. Conner is better in the passing game, however, whereas Snell has the advantage in short-yardage situations and is also the younger of the two.
Assuming Conner is still in 2019 form and Snell continues to impress with broken tackles and contact balance, I’d expect Pittsburgh to rotate a relatively equal committee with Snell at the head of it.