Not to be a party pooper, but as much as James Conner has been something of a revelation so far this season for the Pittsburgh Steelers—he is third in the league in rushing yards and second in rushing touchdowns, and his work as a receiver has been impressive as well—there is one area in particular in which I would like to see the ground game improve.
Getting off to quicker starts.
Conner’s rushing totals during the first half of games have been nothing to write home about, especially if you look through it game by game. Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns was another slow start. On three first-quarter runs, he gained a total of seven yards with zero successful plays, and also fumbled the ball. In the second quarter, he had seven runs for 24 yards, with three successful plays.
This was a trend that I was hoping was over, because the running game was improved during the two games heading into the bye week. Against the Atlanta Falcons in Week Five, Conner registered 11 carries and averaged 6.5 yards per run, with six of those being successful plays.
He carried the ball 12 times over the course of the first and second quarters against the Cincinnati Bengals a week later. While he averaged four yards per carry, and only five of the plays were successful, there was an overall positive trend from the beginning of the half to the end.
But it has been the second half (almost) all season in which Conner has really come to life. In the third quarter especially, he has 36 carries on the season and has averaged over six yards per rush, along with four of his nine touchdowns on the year. On 35 carries in the fourth quarter and overtime, he is averaging 4.4 yards with another touchdown.
He was particularly strong in closing out Sunday’s game against the Browns, something that he failed to do in the opener against the same team, including a costly fumble that got Cleveland back in the game and ultimately led to a tie.
He actually lost yardage on his first two carries of the fourth quarter on Sunday, but was successful on his six subsequent carries, beginning with a conversion on third and one and ending with a breakaway 22-yard touchdown on third and three.
If Conner—and the offense as whole, namely the offensive line—can continue to build up to this closer role, then great. But at the same time, they also need to get off to better starts than they have for most of the season, as they have averaged under four yards per carry in the majority of their games so far this year in the first half.