I’m certainly not going to be one to ever dismiss the skills and abilities that running back Le’Veon Bell brings to the field for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and perhaps will again whenever he actually makes the decision to show up this year. But it is interesting that one area in which the team has not really been missing the All-Pro is in the passing game.
Through the first two games of the regular season—and thus the first two starts of his career—second-year running back James Conner has contributed 10 receptions, on 11 targets, for 105 yards. He caught five passes for 57 yards in the season opener, and added another five catches for 48 yards, in the team’s loss on Sunday.
If you prorate those numbers over the course of a full season, that would work out to 80 receptions for 840 receiving yards. Which sounds awfully similar to Bell’s breakout 2014 season, in which he caught 83 passes for a career-high 854 yards.
Through the 62 games that Bell has played during the regular season in his career to date, he is averaging 5.03 receptions and 42.9 receiving yards per game. Conner has, at least for two games, been able to duplicate a typical Bell receiving game.
Now, is that going to be sustainable over the course of an entire season? Probably not, though it’s not impossible. Consider DeAngelo Williams. When he was called upon to start 10 games for the team in 2015, he set career highs with 40 receptions for 367 receiving yards. His previous career highs of 33 and 333, respectively, were not typical of his usual workload in the passing game.
So it is partly the offense that the Steelers run that produces numbers from the running back position. But it’s undeniable in watching the tape that Conner has also made significant strides as a pass-catcher. We have seen phenomenal displays of his ability to bring the ball in (remember the sideline catch that dragged him out of bounds, which was wiped out because of defensive pass interference?).
Not only has he worked steadily on his hands, he has also shown the ability to be productive with the ball in his hands after the catch. He is currently averaging 11.5 yards after the catch, some of which of course comes behind the line of scrimmage, and has forced seven missed tackles on his 10 receptions.
Only Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, and Saquon Barkey among running backs have produced more missed tackles on receptions than has Conner—by one—and the latter two have five and six more receptions than he does, respectively.
This is to say nothing of his significant improvement in pass protection. While he may have had a glitch here or there, he has overall been very assignment-sound and even knocked a couple of blitzers down. But it’s what he has shown in his receiving ability that has been most intriguing so far this year.