Behind every good running back, you’re going to find to good offensive line. Actually, let me rephrase that. In front of every good running back, you’re going to find a good offensive line. There is no doubt that Pittsburgh Steelers second-year running back James Conner has been a good one this year through six games. But there is also no doubt that the five men up front have helped him significantly along the way.
That is in no way to diminish what Conner has accomplished, and the fact is that he does create a lot of the offense himself. Just watch the number of missed tackles that he forces. But as you’ll see below, it’s often set up by the work of the offensive line. Which is why they get paid.
The ground game got off to a bit of a slow start early on before starting to pick up late in the first when they broke out for a 26-yard run. Of course who but Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro were responsible for leading him around the right side? Conner does his part hugging inside until he hits DeCastro’s back to set up the edge as well.
The success on the ground continued into the red zone. On first and goal from the eight-yard line, the running back got down to the one. Marcus Gilbert and DeCastro sealed off Geno Atkins, who was penalized for defensive holding, while Chukwuma Okorafor—the sixth man—blocked down Vincent Ray at the second level to give the back one man to beat.
The group got the ball into the end zone one play later, and it was DeCastro primarily responsible for it. Pulling from his right guard position, the All-Pro was cleared for a one-on-one rematch with Vontaze Burfict around left tackle. Burfict lost—but DeCastro kind of did too, as Conner just bowled right on top of him. Hey, whatever it takes.
The rushing success continued into the second half, Conner nearly breaking one for a 26-yard score, instead going down officially as a 25-yard gain to the one. It naturally bore many similarities to the first play above, Pouncey and DeCastro getting on the edge. Also, feel free to get a glimpse of Burfict just completely giving up as the running back gets past him. He doesn’t even watch to see what happens. That’s the Bengals’ defensive captain.
The second-year back would later add a 16-yard run, once again trailing DeCastro, who bullied Rey clear out of the hole. Conner injured Shawn Williams on the play as he fought for extra yardage.
A successful ground game is a symbiosis of not five, but six players performing in cohesion, that being the five offensive linemen (though sometimes more) and the running back—or even a fullback as well but you get the idea. Both parties individually need to do their jobs, but they also have to do so in sync, and that is what we saw on Sunday.