James Conner has been good in pass game, bad in run game for Steelers

James Conner was a Pro Bowl player just a season ago. Here’s why the Steelers running back has been good in the passing game and poor running the football.

By now, every casual NFL fan around the nation knows Steelers running back, James Conner. The former Pitt standout and cancer survivor is a homegrown product who has played high school, college, and professional football within a 126-mile radius.

Conner is impossible not to like with his team-first mentality, relentless motor, and selfless demeanor. Still, we must shed some light on areas that he is struggling in this season.

Though James Conner was a Pro Bowl running back in 2018, he hasn’t had the same dominant performance on the ground that he did just a season ago. Conner is currently 36th in the NFL in rushing yards, but a lack of opportunity hasn’t necessarily been the issue.

The Steelers starting running back is averaging merely 3.2 yards per attempt on the ground. This is the second-worst mark of any starting running back in the league. Ironically enough, Le’Veon Bell is the only stating running back to average less per carry (3.0).

Some of the names ahead of Conner on the list of both rushing yards and yards per carry include Raheem Mostert, Duke Johnson, Peyton Barber, Ronald Jones, Royce Freeman, Alexander Mattison, and Kerryon Johnson. Even two quarterbacks – Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray – have more rushing yards through the first six weeks of the season.

Many factors go into play here. The offensive line has held up well against the pass, but they haven’t been nearly as good in the run game this year. However, rookie Benny Snell has managed to find some success behind the front five. He is averaging 4.6 yards per carry on the season – nearly a yard and a half more per attempt than Conner.

We all know James Conner is a tough runner, and he’s a better football player than his pedestrian numbers on the ground would indicate. Still, it’s interesting to note how inefficient he has been running the ball this season as opposed to last year.

Though James Conner has had his rushing woes, he has been one of the most impressive running backs in the passing game. Interestingly enough, the 3rd year running back has nearly the same amount of receiving yards (231) as he does rushing yards on the season (235). But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Conner ranks 6th among all NFL running backs in receiving yards in 2019, and his impressive 8.9 yards per catch is higher than elite pass-catching running backs Christian McCaffrey (8.7) and Alvin Kamara (8.4).

Some of these stats are a bit skewed, however. For example, during the Week 4 game against the Bengals, the Steelers ran a lot of plays from the Wildcat formation where the ball was tossed forward to Conner – qualifying as a forward pass. However, these were essentially running plays that ultimately would have boosted Conner’s yards per carry and decreased his yards per reception.

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Regardless of how we choose to spin it, James Conner is having an interesting season, to say the least. While his efficiency on the ground may be one of the worst among starting running backs this year, it certainly isn’t all his fault, and he makes up for it impressive numbers in the passing game. It will be interesting to track his progression after the bye week.


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