It looks like the Pittsburgh Steelers might have found one of the real steals of the 2014 NFL draft. A total of seven running backs were drafted ahead of Kent State star Dri Archer. Two weeks into the preseason, it is starting to look like Archer should have come off the board much sooner.
Archer slid to the 97th pick due in part to a lack of production his senior season. After racking up 1,990 yards and 20 touchdowns on offense as a junior, Archer failed to reach 1,000 yards in 2013.
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The other question about Archer centered on his size. At 5'8" and 175 pounds, Archer is a little undersized by NFL running back standards. OK, he's a lot undersized. So, following that logic, teams aren't going to draft him with the intention of making him a featured running back.
The Steelers drafted Archer to be a complementary player on what is already a pretty loaded group of skill players. Let's take a closer look at Archer and what his impact could be for the Steelers.
Another Week, Another Big Play
The Steelers have two preseason games in the books, and in each of them, Archer has had a big, explosive play in the passing game. The truth is, Archer's biggest impact thus far has been as a receiving threat instead of as a pure running back.
That's because Archer's strength is working in space. Two weeks in a row now, the Steelers have found efficient ways of getting him the football in space without making it into a gimmick.
There is nothing more counterproductive than to have a player with the speed and explosion of Archer and feel like you have to create plays for him to be productive. Pittsburgh is just treating him like a football player and is having great success.
This past week against the Bills, Archer was once again the recipient of a big player, this time courtesy of a Landry Jones screen pass that he was able to turn into a long gain. However, as you see below, there are some key differences.
Against the New York Giants, Pittsburgh lined Archer up as a wide receiver and ran him on an inside wide receiver screen. This time around, Archer is lined up in the backfield as a running back pre-snap.
This formation, 11-personnel, is commonly utilized by the Steelers. It is great because with motion and shifts it can easy become a four-wide or five-wide set. With Pittsburgh using more no-huddle offense, the versatility this grouping offers is excellent.
This time around, the Steelers run Archer on a little inside-out screen pass. Now, in reviewing the game, I'm not sure what went wrong, but it is clear from the picture below that the offensive line wasn't in a position to block for Archer after the catch.
Nevertheless, Archer recognized the mismatch and just took the pass in full stride, broke to the outside and was off to the races again. Another important part of this play design, once again, is Pittsburgh is using multiple wide receivers to push the defensive backs deep. Once Archer has the football, all bets are off if a defender with the angle can’t get to him in time. NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah expounds on this point here:
Dri Archer is going to be a nice package player in this PIT offense. He destroys pursuit angles.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) August 17, 2014
This play was run against nine in the box. However, at the snap, the Bills defense had to retreat because of the speed of Pittsburgh's skill players. Even the Bills players with angles to Archer lost ground with every step.
The Return Game
One area that everyone assumed Archer would have a big impact on was as a return man. Unfortunately, up until this point, teams haven't really given Archer anything to work with. This philosophy feels more regular season than preseason, but regardless, Archer just isn't getting any kicks or punts to return.
This is counterproductive for not only the Steelers, but for the opposition as well. These games don't count, so why not kick it to the speedster and see what your coverage team can do?
Pittsburgh still has two more preseason games to see what kind of return specialist Archer can be. The hope is he can supplant Antonio Brown fully so that Brown can focus on offense.
Impact on the Final Roster
It will be interesting to see how the inclusion of Archer will impact the team's final 53-man roster going forward. The Steelers find themselves in a position where they will probably be starting the year with two long snappers on the roster. That's problematic because that player has to come from somewhere.
Here is one possible angle for the final 53-man roster. Pittsburgh could opt to keep running backs Le’Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer, along with fullback Will Johnson.
Having Archer in the mix would allow the Steelers to only keep five wide receivers, and make it easier to accommodate the extra long snapper for the time being.
Temptation might be to saturate the offense with plays designed for Archer. It happens every season with players who have exceptional speed and explosiveness. However, the key to a player like Archer being successful isn’t about double reverses and the Wildcat.
How many touches per game should Archer get?
Archer has a chance to be a special player in situational football. These back-to-back 40-yard receptions are not an anomaly. With the talent around him, there are going to be some windows in each game for Pittsburgh to attack with Archer.
Put aside those inside runs the Steelers have been sending Archer on, because that’s as much for the offensive line as it is Archer. This team already has the beef for those plays. No, it’s going to be the wheel routes and slip screens where Archer embarrasses defenses.