The Pittsburgh Steelers are out of Latrobe and back at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, also referred to as the South Side Facility. We are already into the regular season, where everything is magnified and, you know, actually counts. The team is working through the highs and lows and dramas that go through a typical Steelers season.
How are the rookies performing? What about the players that the team signed in free agency? Who is missing time with injuries, and when are they going to be back? What are the coaches saying about what they are going to do this season that might be different from how it was a year ago?
These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.
Question: Have you seen enough from James Conner to believe that he can be an every-down back on a championship team?
From the sounds of it, the Steelers may well have two featured backs within a few weeks. Le’Veon Bell is said to intend to report for the team’s seventh regular season game, at which point James Conner will have had six games of his own to stake his claim on the job.
It seems like a foregone conclusion that Bell will not be with the team in 2019, but the question is whether or not Conner will be an every-down, full-time starting running back. That is how he has been used so far this season.
In fact, at the moment he ranks seventh in the league in yards from scrimmage, and third in the AFC behind only DeAndre Hopkins and Melvin Gordon. His 342 rushing yards ranks seventh at the moment after his second 100-yard rushing game, and he has added another 239 yards through the air for 581 total yards of offense. That is only 14 yards behind Gordon for the league lead.
Sunday’s game was the most complete from him to date in his young career, rushing for 110 yards on 21 carries and adding another 75 receiving yards on four receptions. He rushed for two touchdowns, though he did have another fumble, which went out of bounds.
He has so far looked the part, overall, but has had long spells of below-average production (notice I said production rather than performance). He averaged just 2.1 yards per rush in two of his five games this season, for example, on fewer than 10 carries in each.
It’s reasonable to assume that he is at least as likely to continue to get better as he is to remain at his current performance level or to experience a regression. But is he a foundational piece of a championship team? They are 2-2-1 with him so far.