We weren’t able to get around to talking about every single notable player for the Pittsburgh Steelers during our midseason evaluations at the bye week, so as we have another bye week and a brief pause in football, I wanted to take this time to circle back a bit and highlighting a few more players who played an undervalued role for the team this year.
The Steelers went 6-2 during the first half of the season, and did even better in the second half, with only a review in New York separating them from an 8-0 back half. 7-1 isn’t bad, but it is the difference between a bye week and homefield advantage.
As the season wore on, different players were called upon to step up at different times, and I wanted to take a moment to talk about some of them. This week, I will be highlighting Tyson Alualu, Sean Spence, Cameron Sutton, James Conner, Chris Hubbard, and Chris Boswell.
Player: James Conner
While he never got a chance to play a role of much significance for the Steelers this season, the rookie campaign of running back James Conner at least merits some discussion. The Pittsburgh Panther, who overcame Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, was added to the roster as a third-round pick in last year’s draft.
It’s no surprise that his playing time has been rather minimal spelling Le’Veon Bell, who was again was named a first-team All-Pro this season. Bell spends a higher percentage of time on the field by a good distance than any other player at this position in the league.
That seems largely to be true no matter who is backup has been. Simply, he is too good to take off the field. Now, if they get somebody like Todd Gurley as it backup, then maybe he will log a bit more time than the average backup, but otherwise, a player like Conner will have to sustain himself on scraps.
But sustain he has. While he got only 32 carries during the season, he picked up 144 yards on the ground, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. That included six runs that gained at least 10 yards at a time, and one run that went for over 20 yards.
A bigger back both in height and weight, Conner has made a career out of surprising people with his explosiveness, which is particularly evident in close quarters, and we did see that during his rookie season.
That is not to say that he doesn’t have a lot to work on, though most immediately, he is working on recovering from a torn MCL. But as he becomes a more confident and decisive runner, he must also flesh out the rest of his game.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley did indicate at one point that one reason for the reluctance to put him on the field has been his need to improve in pass protection. We also didn’t get to see much of anything in the passing game. These are things he will have to show in year two, as he perhaps finds himself battling Stevan Ridley for the backup job.