Labriola on Benny Snell Football, Hodges' chances

LATROBE, Pa. – Ready or not, here it comes:

• Benny Snell Football.

• When it comes to the Steelers’ 2019 draft class, No. 1 pick Devin Bush is seen as the single player who holds a key to the team’s immediate improvement, but Benny Snell Jr. is the one who has captivated fans with his personality and his playing style.

• It wasn’t long after the Steelers made him their fourth-round pick and the 122nd overall selection that it was noticed Snell liked to refer to himself in the third person, and that when speaking about what he might contribute to the team he referred to it as Benny Snell Football.

• But what also was noticeable was how Snell was able to pull off the speaking of himself in the third person and referring to his game as Benny Snell Football without coming across as annoying or arrogant. Instead, he had personality and seemed to be having fun.

• Nothing energizes Steelers Nation like a running back who gets the job done with strength and power, and as the highlights of Snell’s performance against Penn State in the Citrus Bowl when he rushed for 144 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries and almost single-handedly bled the final four-plus minutes off the clock in a three-point Wildcats victory were replayed over and over, a love affair took root.

• Fans started dreaming about the Steelers going back to an offense built around a power running attack, even though their favorite team’s offense also employed a future Hall of Fame quarterback who led the NFL with over 5,000 yards passing in 2018. Never going to happen, this notion of making the franchise quarterback a supporting member of a cast starring the running backs, but often times fans aren’t interested in reality so much as they want what they want when they want it. And for those folks this seemed to be the time for some Benny Snell Football.

• But even though the idea of making a rookie running back the focal point of an offense quarterbacked by Ben Roethlisberger, to say nothing of said rookie having to vault James Conner on the depth chart to become that focal point is delusional, that’s not to say Snell cannot become a key contributor in 2019. That whole milking the clock in the final minutes of a game to protect a lead would be a valuable contribution, and the Steelers are open-minded about having Snell fill that role.

• First, though, Snell is going to have to show himself capable of handling the complete job description that comes with being an NFL running back, because one-trick ponies can quickly become a liability to their teams once opponents figure out that one trick.

• Because of Roethlisberger, Steelers running backs absolutely must be willing and capable blockers, because their reality is that their own health is secondary to protecting the quarterback’s health. In training camp, the Steelers test that willingness with the backs-on-backers drill.

• Not surprisingly, Roethlisberger came over to be an observer both times the Steelers have run the drill to this point in training camp, and he offered verbal support and encouragement to Snell every time Coach Mike Tomlin called him up to take a rep. When Snell squared up with Tyler Matakevich, Roethlisberger could be heard saying, “Just stay between him and me, and we’ll be good.” When it was Snell vs. Ola Adeniyi, and the rookie kept battling even though he initially appeared to be overmatched, Roethlisberger said, “That’s all I need, Benny, to throw a touchdown.”

• Protecting the franchise quarterback. That’s what is going to be required if Benny Snell Football is to debut in the NFL in 2019.

• Joshua Dobbs will start at quarterback for the Steelers in tonight’s preseason opener, and his performance is tied to undrafted free agent’s Devlin Hodges’. Remember, it was just last summer that Dobbs used the preseason to unseat veteran Landry Jones as the backup quarterback, and this summer it could be Hodges issuing a challenge to Dobbs’ roster spot.

• Hodges, who broke Steve McNair’s FCS record for passing yards and finished with 14,584 during his college career at Samford, has drawn some positive attention through the first couple of weeks of training camp. Described as a player with “decent size, not great,” and with “a good arm, not great,” Hodges (6-foot-1, 210) has displayed quick decision-making and accuracy in drills. But in order to pull off this year’s roster-spot upset, Hodges will have to continue to improve, while also hoping either Dobbs or Mason Rudolph provides him an opening by performing below expectations.

• Looking for the negatives during the first two weeks on campus, Rudolph seems to be holding onto the ball too long in the pocket, and Dobbs looks to be too quick to tuck the ball and run if his first option is covered. These are the kind of issues that will have to continue and even worsen in conjunction with Hodges lighting it up in the preseason for the Steelers to consider a change to their depth chart at quarterback.

• Degree of difficulty also is a factor with the quarterback competition, as it is with the competition for spots on the depth chart at all other positions, and this is a general description as to how that works:

• The players are categorized into first-team, second-team, and third-team, with the first-team made up of starters or players seen as starter-capable, the second-team generally made up of veteran backups with NFL experience as such, and the third-team consists of rookies and new guys generally listed at the bottom of the depth chart.

• Special teams coordinator Danny Smith always preaches that “if you’re not a starter on offense or defense, you better be a starter on special teams” to make an NFL roster. Coach Mike Tomlin will remind the guys on the third-team that come the end of the preseason, there is no third-team in the NFL.

• Movement up or back among the groups is determined mainly by performance, but also by availability, and the opportunities can present themselves at the drop of a hat.

• “It is so fluid. It’s ongoing all the time,” said Tomlin about the promotions/demotions. “There are battlefield promotions in the midst of a practice when somebody goes down. It’s important that the player recognizes it. It’s, ‘Hey, I’m a third-team rep guy. Something happens in the second group and I get called up in the middle of practice, I’m looking at an opportunity. An opportunity to show I belong in that group, an opportunity to show I can be productive in that group.’

• “That’s why we talk so much about the level of conditioning, because you have to ready yourself for those unforeseen opportunities to put yourself in position to take advantage of it. Often times it doesn’t mean that you’re moving up from the third group to the second group. What it means is you’re repping with the third group AND the second group. So conditioning puts you in position to take advantage of those opportunities.”

• To apply this specifically to the quarterback position, Hodges has been working third-team reps. If/when he gets an opportunity vs. second-team competition, and if he continues to shine as he has so far, then it will be a competition in more than name only.

• And that goes for every other competition at every other position.

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