A lot of attention was paid to Pittsburgh Steelers second-year running back James Conner and the fact that he was getting his first career start yesterday with Le’Veon Bell choosing not to report in order to preserve his body for the 2019 free agency period, during which he hopes to land a record-breaking contract with quite a bit of full guarantees.
And rightfully so. He racked up nearly 200 yards from scrimmage on 37 touches on the day, and accounted for two of the team’s three touchdowns. He would have accounted for all three had his would-be second score not been wiped out by a holding penalty. The team would eventually get into the end zone on a passing play.
But Conner wasn’t the only running back on the roster. Where was veteran Stevan Ridley? Where was rookie Jaylen Samuels? Conner was spelled only very briefly during the game, and when they happened, it was with wide receiver Ryan Switzer, who lined up in the backfield twice and as a receiver in his place at least once. I don’t have exact snap counts as I write this but we will have it shortly.
I don’t believe that either of the team’s other running backs got the chance to see the field on offense tonight. If they did, they certainly did not make any contributions. The only other carries aside from Conner’s 31 totes were two scrambles and a sneak from Ben Roethlisberger and a handoff to Switzer.
During his pre-game press conference on Tuesday, Mike Tomlin was asked why he was so much more confident heading into this season about the depth behind Bell than he was a year ago, and he needed only to provide a one-word answer: James.
The 12th-year head coach, who just experienced his first tie, lived those words, because he used Conner pretty much as he would have used Bell if he were available, which is to say frequently and at high volume. The All-Pro only matched or bettered yesterday’s workload twice in his 16 games played a year ago, and only once in 15 games played the year before. Bell has only compiled at least 192 yards seven times in his career, three over the past two seasons.
But why run Conner so hard throughout the game? Was it to try to prove a point? Was it simply because the Steelers prefer to have an every-down back in their system? Was it up to Conner, who never asked to come out?
The question that really needs to be answered is whether or not the game was negatively affected by the team’s decision to shy away from spreading the workload out and relying entirely on Conner. I don’t know definitely, just hours after the game ended, that the answer is yes. But it’s something to look into.