The Pittsburgh Steelers in recent years have grown accustomed to having one of the best running backs in the NFL, year in and year out. The expectation was the same heading into this season with Le’Veon Bell heading into year six, but even after he failed to report, they are still getting in quality work from his would-be backup, James Conner.
The second-year running back, a third-round draft pick out of Pitt in 2017, has started the first six games of the season for the Steelers in Bell’s absence. While he put up low numbers between weeks two through four, he had strong games otherwise, rushing for over 100 yards in all of them, with two touchdowns. He is only the fifth player since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to accomplish that in a team’s first six games.
For that an other reasons, he earned a spot on former Pro Bowl running back Maurice Jones-Drew’s list of the top running backs of the 2018 season. He was listed seventh on the list, behind (in order), Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Kareem Hunt, Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Alvin Kamara.
“With Le’Veon Bell yet to report, Conner is definitely taking advantage of his opportunities”, Jones-Drew wrote, admittedly rather insubstantially. “He’s provided a great spark to the offense, especially in last week’s win over Cincinnati when he had 111 rushing yards and two touchdowns”. It is worth noting that his previous rank was 14th.
It might also be worth reminding that Jones-Drew’s agent is the same as Bell’s. The preface to his article actually featured a fairly long segment in which he discussed how the team’s lack of a dual backfield results in the Steelers ranking low in total running back touches.
“The Steelers have been without All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell, who has yet to sign his franchise tender, this season, but the hope is that he’ll be back with the team before the Nov. 13 deadline (if he doesn’t sign by that date, by rule, Bell can’t play for the remainder of the season)”, Jones-Drew reminded of the situation we all know.
“Thus, like the Saints’ duo, which will surely rank higher in RB touches per game by season’s end now that Ingram and Kamara have been reunited (Ingram was suspended for the first four games), the Steelers’ running backs will be taking on a much heavier workload whenever Bell returns”. That is assuming he does return.
“The Steelers haven’t consistently kept their RBs involved during the first six games, too often letting Big Ben throw the ball all over the yard — to mixed results. (Pittsburgh is 3-0-1 when James Conner has touched the ball 20 or more times and 0-2 when he hasn’t.)”, he added. “Relying solely on Roethlisberger’s arm is no longer a recipe for success, and the team has to know it. That’s why I can’t wait to see how scary this unit looks when the Steelers are feeding Bell and Conner the ball all game long”.