This is something that I touched on earlier in my preview of what to watch for in tonight’s game, but potentially one of the most important things that we could see from the Pittsburgh Steelers is an extensive look at second-year running back James Conner and how he has grown to handle his duties and responsibilities in the passing game.
The 2017 third-round pick earlier this offseason expressed confidence in the work that he put on tape in the running back, averaging 4.5 yards per carry on 32 attempts as a rookie and with a high percentage of successful runs, but he lamented his struggles in the passing game and put his focus on improving in those areas this year.
So far, we really haven’t gotten the opportunity to see that almost at all, with his most high-profile moment being his failure to adequately pick up a blitz in the first preseason game that helped to get Landry Jones sacked. He had a similar play in 2017 against the Jacksonville Jaguars that resulted in an intercepted throw from Ben Roethlisberger.
If Conner is ever going to be a trusted or featured back, which is a distinct possibility following the 2018 season due to the contract status of Le’Veon Bell, then he is going to have to convince the coaching staff—and Roethlisberger—that he can be a weapon in the passing game and an extensive of the offensive line protection when necessary.
He certainly does not lack the physicality nor the mentality for the assignment. He spent some time on defense in the past, and he is a pretty big back in general, even if he has slimmed down some this offseason. There really is no reason that he should not be a very good pass protector.
According to Alex Kozora’s training camp reports, he actually did make strides in working on catching the football, but it’s important that we get to see that in games, and this is going to be the best opportunity to do so, because it will likely be Conner’s most extensive work for the entire year, assuming that Bell is healthy and doesn’t get rested in the season finale, as he has the past two years.
Of course, we know that it’s unnecessary in today’s game to have one featured running back. Even Bell himself is an anomaly among the featured backs, spending about 90 percent of his time in the games in which he has played being on the field, which is an exceptional workload.
But the Steelers do seem to desire having that do-everything running back and think that Conner may have the potential to do that. They will adjust if they have to, but outside of that one year with Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, Mike Tomlin has clearly valued a player who can do it all.