Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner emerged from the shadow of Le’Veon Bell last Sunday with an exceptional performance…that is, for majority of last Sunday’s game.
Conner’s overall stat line reads: 31 carries for 135 yards as well as 57 receiving yards, totaling 192 yards from scrimmage. Obviously, Conner’s fumble late against the Cleveland Browns was a pretty big error but perhaps the biggest error from the running back’s performance came not from his hands but from the coaching staff.
One of the biggest surprises and one that has been talked about all week is the Steelers’ decision to not relieve Conner. Besides one carry by Ryan Switzer, Conner received all of the running back duties, and one has to wonder if the Steelers were better off relieving their running back in order to preserve his legs for the entirety of Sunday’s game.
A look at Conner’s splits by quarter may give a better indicator of perhaps his stamina, or lack of stamina as the game progressed.
First quarter: 4.4 yards per carry
Second quarter: 8.0 yards per carry
Third quarter: 8.0 yards per carry
Fourth quarter: 2.3 yards per carry
Overtime: 1.3 yards per carry
Conner’s yards per carry nose dived after the third quarter, as the running back tallied 102 yards and averaged 6.8 yards per carry. From the fourth quarter on, this number fell to 33 yards and just 2.1 yards per carry. The running back also picked up just one first down from the fourth quarter on, losing effectiveness as the game continued and conditions worsened.
The final carries of Conner’s afternoon went for -2, 3, 2, 2 and 1 yard respectfully. One has to wonder if the Steelers will plan to incorporate Stevan Ridley or Jaylen Samuels more into the game for a drive or series just to ease Conner’s workload should he be needed to close out a contest.
This could be an interesting factor to monitor as Conner’s 31 rushing attempts and 36 total touches not only led the league but they are also the running back’s first big workload in quite some time. The former Pittsburgh Panther has not eclipsed 31 carries in a game since his college days, as the last time he exceeded 31 carries was on November 1st, 2014, almost four years ago. For a running back that totaled 32 carries over the entire course of last season, Conner fell one carry short of matching that in a four-hour affair.
The possibility of implementing Ridley or Samuels to offset’s Conner’s heavy and unusual workload may be a topic to keep an eye on as the team marches forward without their usual bell cow back. With the possibility of Bell being absent for an extended amount of time becoming more and more of a reality, the Steelers will need to protect their newest asset and do everything in their power to preserve his effectiveness.