The Pittsburgh Steelers’ first and fourth picks in the 2017 NFL draft would seem to be mirroring each other so far this year. T.J. Watt recorded three sacks in week one before going 0-for the next three weeks, then doing it again on Sunday. James Conner rushed for 100 yards and scored two touchdowns in week one, then did it again this past week.
He rushed for under 20 yards in two of the three games in between. But if you ask Ben Roethlisberger, his quarterback, he’ll tell you that ‘up and down’ is by no means an accurate description of how the second-year running back’s season has gone.
A reporter asked him about that earlier today during an interview scrum. “I don’t know that there’s been much ‘down’”, he said. “I mean, if you’re saying in terms of rushing yards, but if you look at the overall picture of what we’ve asked him to do every week, I think it’s been going up every week”.
It should stand to reason that a quarterback more than anybody else would have a certain vested interest in what a running back is doing when he’s not being given the ball on a handoff, but he is right. Conner has been a good overall player week in and week out.
“I think that’s lost in what a running back, and what he’s been doing, is pass-blocking, picking up the blitz, catching the ball out of the backfield”, Roethlisberger said. “I don’t want to jinx anything but he’s catching almost everything I throw to him and he’s in the right spot every time quickly. So I know we talk about in terms of yards rushing, you may see that up and down, but in terms of just football player and running back play, it’s been going up every week”.
Conner had a career-high 75 receiving yards on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, and now has 239 receiving yards on 22 receptions through five games. Were he to continue to be an every-down back for the duration of the season, he would be on pace for over 750 receiving yards on 70 receptions. And while he doesn’t have a receiving touchdown, he has caught two passes for two-point conversion.
As we know, however, he might not get the chance to finish out the season as the featured back if Le’Veon Bell returns and plays. Roethlisberger has already said that he believes Conner has proven with his play that he deserves to continue seeing the field, and he added to that a bit as well.
“I think keeping guys fresh, that’s important. You don’t want to wear one guy down”, he told reporters. “You saw last week you had James who would go for a while and then [Stevan Ridley] would come in and get some blows, and I think that that would be important when Le’Veon does come back, that both of those guys stay really fresh and are on the field”.