PITTSBURGH - I was as skeptical as anyone when it came to the glowing reports about Benny Snell coming out of Steelers training camp. The number of players who are said to be in the "best shape of their lives" is always far greater than those who actually are.
Snell was mostly a short-yardage running back last season for the Steelers, and his career at Kentucky suggested that was his specialty. He is a downhill, physical runner and he does get tough yards, but doing much beyond that seemed like something that would go over his head.
On Monday night against the Giants, though, two things became clear as the game wore on: Snell is more than capable of being an every-down back and he, not James Conner, is the Steelers' best running back.
Conner has a great story to tell. He is an inspiration to everyone, a cancer survivor from Erie, Pa., who played for Pitt. He had one stretch of really good football and parlayed that into a spot in the Pro Bowl.
All of that has also led to him being a bit overrated by people locally and has helped him avoid the kind of scrutiny a lot of players have to face when they don't get the job done. The biggest criticism of Conner to this point is that he can't stay healthy, and in three seasons we have seen no evidence that he can.
That's why, unfortunately, the most predictable thing that happened Monday was Conner injuring his ankle and being unable to finish the game. That's happened too much in his career, and that's why he has only appeared in 38 of a possible 49 games. And in those 38 games, he has had at least a handful end like Monday.
That's been the biggest criticism of Conner, but the other one that applies is that he just doesn't make enough plays. He is productive on some level because he has averaged 4.3 yards per carry, but he is not a high impact player and he rarely makes plays that change games.
He was given the nod by Mike Tomlin to start the season and I understand that, given he has been the team's primary running back, when healthy, since Le'Veon Bell sat out a season and then signed with the Jets. Conner deserved the job and the right to hold on to it until someone proved that they deserved it more.
That's where Snell comes in. It was easy to see the Steelers offense Monday was much better and much more explosive when he was in the game. Snell rushed for 113 yards on 19 carries (5.9 yards per carry), but it isn't about statistics. It's about the kind of runs he had.
Snell was more explosive than Conner, finished runs better than Conner, and ripped several long runs - including a 30-yarder - that proved he isn't just the "third-and-short" guy. Snell ran through tackles, ran away from tacklers and he lowered the boom several times when players tried to get him.
And his pass blocking was excellent, as he picked up some key blitzes that helped Ben Roethlisberger make big plays in the passing game.
The Steelers running game was an issue last season. The offensive line didn't block consistently. The running backs faced a lot of stacked defensive fronts because nobody had to respect the Steelers passing game. And the running backs didn't make enough plays. Plus, Conner only appeared in 10 games because of injuries.
Now the Steelers have to rebuild their offensive line a little bit. It has been reported that tackle Zach Banner is out for the season with a torn ACL. Guard David DeCastro has a nagging knee injury that kept him out of Monday's game. Guard Stefan Wisniewski is out with a pectoral injury. Ramon Foster retired after last season.
The Steelers have some options to fill the line and will look to the waiver wire to boost their depth. But the line only matters so much and the efficiency and ability to dominate the running game comes down to how hard and effective the running backs run and the plays that they make, so Tomlin must pick the best player at the position regardless of pedigree and seniority.
And it is clear now that Snell, not Conner, is the best running back on the roster. He gives the Steelers a boost in an area where they needed a big one. He has proven he can be an every-down back and he should now get the majority of the carries and be the Steelers' featured back.
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