Over the course of the past five seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers and their offensive linemen have been taught the virtue of patience and perseverance thanks to the nature in which they have had to block, and sustain their blocks, for the betterment of the running style of their starting running back, Le’Veon Bell.
An All-Pro when he is healthy and not suspended, Bell is entering his sixth season averaging roughly 129 yards per scrimmage per game played, which is the single highest yardage total per-game for an entire career in the history of the NFL. He has clearly put his running style to good use.
Still, the running game is more fun for offensive linemen—or at least they often claim—because it’s less passive than pass protection, where you’re trying to prevent something from happening rather than causing it to happen. So it sounds as though getting to consistently block for second-year running back James Conner this summer has been somewhat of a refreshing change of pace for this veteran line.
“He runs the ball hard”, spot starter B.J. Finney, entering his fourth year (third on the 53-man roster) with the team, told the Steelers’ website about Conner. “He finds the hole, hits it and doesn’t think twice about it. It’s really nice. When you have a back like that you get a quick fit. You make sure you are in front of your guy. He hits the hole and he is gone. It’s nice”.
This is in no way intended to imply that there is a shot taken to Bell in Finney’s comments or in others made by linemen about their fondness for Conner’s straightforward, full speed ahead running style. They have a long history of working with Bell and understand both how and why he runs with his technique, and they know that it is effective.
Yet I think it is inevitable that they would appreciate the variety provided by Conner’s more aggressive and assertive, attacking mentality, which allows the linemen to have a more singular approach to their blocking, knowing that they won’t have to wait for three seconds to see the ballcarrier streak by them.
The former Pitt standout only got 32 carries during his rookie season, but made good use of them, gaining 144 yards. So far during this preseason, he has carried the ball nine times for 82 yards, including 57 yards on five carries in the team’s last game against the Green Bay Packers. He took the Steelers from their own 27-yard line into the end zone in three plays on one drive.
While Bell has said that he doesn’t believe he will see fewer touches than he did a year ago—over 400—he did say that he thinks more of them will come via passes. The Steelers have been toying with using multiple running backs at a time this preseason, which may be a way to give Conner more opportunities in his second season.