How long does it take for a running back to ‘prove’ that he can be the guy? I suppose it depends upon a number of factors, not the least of which being the subjectivity of the evaluator. It also depends upon his pedigree, his skillset, and, of course, his actual results.
Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner may be only six games into his career as a starter in his second season in the league, but he really seems to be convincing his offensive linemen in particular that he is made of the stuff that can carry him, and that they are more than willing to carry in return.
On the eve of a rematch against the team that he faced in his debut as a starter—a game in which he gained nearly 200 total yards but also had a critical fumble that helped lead to what ended up being a tie—his linemen were asked to judge how their trust in him has evolved since then.
“James is a really good back. He’s a guy that’s learning”, left guard Ramon Foster, the most veteran lineman, told reporters in the locker room earlier this week. “He’s a guy that’s fully invested and making sure that he’s successful, and when you have a guy like him out there it’s also important that we get him going also”.
Conner has a different running style than does Le’Veon Bell, so there are some differences in that regard, but their priding themselves in their vision remains the same, so the linemen understand that they can’t be lazy in their blocks. Bell might be more patient, but Conner is equally likely to make an on-the-spot adjustment if he sees a better route out of the backfield.
“He’s doing a better job of taking care of the ball”, Foster continued in discussing the young runner, “a guy that has diversified himself in the passing game. And moving forward, we’ve got the make sure that he’s a guy that we can count on, and he’s showing that”.
Conner did fumble once more since the season opener, though the ball was recovered on that occasion. He has also rushed for over 450 yards with seven touchdowns and put up over 250 receiving yards on 26 receptions, with over 700 total yards from scrimmage.
Many were questioning him after his fumble in the fourth quarter of the opener, and his subsequent poor results on his final rushing attempts. His numbers continued to dip the next three game, partially due to usage, before he returned with consecutive 100-yard games and four more total touchdowns.
Asked about the trust factor in Conner coming out of that first game with the fumble, Maurkice Pouncey said, “I thought if they were going to take the ball from him they would have done it in the last four or five games after that. But they kept feeding it to him”, he added. “I think he’s earned that right. Look at his stats, the way he’s been productive and producing. You can’t take things from him. He’s been doing a great job”.
Now with an extra week of rest, Conner and the running game return to face the team that he started, serving as something of a litmus test about how far he has come in a relatively short amount of time.