In the first week of the 2018 NFL season, James Conner led all players in the league with 31 rushing attempts, picking up 135 yards on the ground to go along with a pair of touchdowns. It seemed to be a statement opening game signaling that the Pittsburgh Steelers could run the ball with him, at a healthy 4.35 yards per carry clip.
Over the past three weeks, he has barely doubled his season-long rushing total, accounting for 32 rushes from Week Two to Week Four. That is tied for just 21st among all players in terms of carries during that span, and his 97 rushing yards is 36th.
As a team, the Steelers’ 46 total rushes in the past three weeks is the second-fewest behind only the Minnesota Vikings. What’s more, their 2.83 yards per rush during that time is also the lowest in the league, and their 13 percent of rushes that have resulted in first downs in the second-worst, the league average being 24.4 percent.
As Conner goes, so too goes the running game. And the running game has been non-existent after second down. Consider this statistic: Conner has carried the ball just one time on third or fourth down the past three weeks. Once. 26 of his carries have come on first down, five on second, and one on third.
Yet they haven’t abandoned the run in the second half. In fact, slightly more than half of his carries—17—have come in the third and fourth quarters, though all six of the fourth-quarter carries came in their victory against the Tamp Bay Buccaneers.
And two of those runs are the only carries of 10-plus yards he has had over the past three games. 23 of his 32 carries have been unsuccessful plays for the offense, with a full seven carries having lost yardage, and another three gaining no yards, so nearly a third of his carries have picked up nothing for the offense or worse.
It’s pretty striking that they could go from a team that looks as though it can be a very successful rushing team—against a defense that has been one of the better run defenses over the past three weeks—only to look as it has the past three weeks.
While digging deep holes for themselves has been a major factor, even offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, the one responsible for calling the plays, knows that it goes beyond that, and he shares some of the blame.
#Steelers OC Randy Fichtner on the team’s absolute disinterest in running the football these last three weeks: “I probably just need to do a better job heating (James Conner) up… All good running backs, they need that rhythm.”
— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) October 4, 2018
“I probably just need to do a better job heating him up”, he told Aditi Kinkhabwala. “All good running backs, they need that rhythm”. And he certainly hasn’t had that. the highest number of first-quarter rushes he has had over the past three games is four. The highest number of first-half rushes is six.