In a season that has been blighted by injuries at key positions for the Pittsburgh Steelers, it comes as no surprise that they face the Baltimore Ravens in a familiar situation. With a place in the NFL playoffs on the line, center Maurkice Pouncey and lead running back James Conner were both ruled out earlier in the week. Although it is anticipated that the Steelers will replace Conner with a backfield committee, rookie Benny Snell will likely lead the way.
It’s a role that Snell relishes.
After spending his college career at Kentucky as the focal point of their offense, Snell has seen limited field time early in his NFL career. If the Steelers want to be successful today, then it would be wise to make sure that Snell is on the field as much as possible.
It’s a fact that isn’t lost on head coach Mike Tomlin, as he alluded to after the Week 13 win over the Cleveland Browns:
“He is a guy that gets better as the game goes on. He has the mentality of a featured runner. He likes the grit associated with the volume of carries. I think he gets better as the game goes on. None of that is surprising to us. We saw it on Kentucky tape, but it is good that he can take it to Sunday stadiums.”
Snell outperforming Conner for the Steelers
The Steelers first saw the benefit of involving Snell more in their Week 6 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. He saw a similar amount of carries to Conner but outperformed the lead back. Snell rushed for 75 yards on 17 carries whereas Conner could manage just 41 yards off his 16 rushes. Although both backs received relatively low Offensive Share Metric grades in that game, Snell’s 9.38 grade showed how much more he contributed to the success of the Steelers offense than Conner, who received a 1.03 grade.
That performance is mirrored throughout the season. Conner ranks as the 37th overall running back with an overall grade of 10.88. Snell is the 4th ranked running back with an overall grade of 19.84. That leads all rookie running backs.
If you give Snell the ball, he is going to do the rest. On a season-high 21 carries against the Cincinnati Bengals, he rushed for 98 yards at a 4.67 yards per carry average. His yards per carry was a top 10 performance in the league. Snell achieved this despite facing an 8-man box on 61.9% of his snaps. He received an OSM grade of 29.62 in that game, demonstrating his offensive contribution on the way to a 16-10 win.
The 8-man box statistic is essential to understand Snell’s game. No other back in the NFL as faced a higher percentage of 8-man box defenses as him. As per NFL Next Gen Stats, 40% of his snaps come against a loaded box. His performance against that level of opposition is testament to the grit that Tomlin referenced following the game against Cleveland.
Running over the Ravens key to victory
The Steelers will need every ounce of that grit in tonight’s must-win matchup against the Ravens.
With the Ravens having already clinched the division and a first-round bye, they are expected to rest several starters, including the anticipated MVP Lamar Jackson. Crucially for the Steelers’ chances of winning, they are also likely to rest key defensive cogs in Earl Thomas and Brandon Williams.
However, be under no illusion, this Baltimore defense will still prove tough opposition. They’re a top 10 unit in interceptions (13) and passing yards allowed (3238). They’re also a top 10 rushing defense allowing just 1403 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns.
Despite having one of the worst rushing attacks in the NFL this season, the Steelers’ key to winning will be imposing their will on the ground. The last team to defeat the Ravens, the Browns back in Week 4, did so by establishing the ground game to the tune of 193 rushing yards. In doing so, you limit the amount of time that the potent Ravens offense spends on the field.
The Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t lost when Snell has been the starting running back.
If that streak continues today, then they’ll have done everything in their power to reach the playoffs, and their fate will rest some 1500 miles away in Houston. If the Tennessee Titans beat the Houston Texans in NRG Stadium, then the Titans will secure the sixth seed in the AFC.