Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner has now fired off three consecutive games with over 100 yards rushing and has combined for 526 yards from scrimmage in those three games. Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns was his best performance yet, with 146 yards rushing and 66 receiving yards. Conner is getting good but this is not about how good Conner is at running the football, we have seen that for ourselves. More importantly, Conner is getting consistent and to truly understand his consistency, you will have to dig deeper than just the box score stats.
Conner has shown that he has no preferences, whether he is at Heinz Field or on the road, the running back is going to bring the boom. At home, the Steelers’ running back has rushed for 292 yards on 62 carries, good for an average of 4.71 yards per carry. Conner’s numbers on the road look almost identical, 307 yards on 65 carries for an average of 4.72 yards per carry. A running back who can control the game at home and grind out victories on the road is involved in the formula for a successful team and Conner meets both those requirements for the Steelers.
The second year running back has consistently rushed for quality yardage as his 4.7 yards per carry shows, this mark is also almost a yard higher than Le’Veon Bell’s 4.0 YPC last season. If four yards per carry is the benchmark, then Conner is surpassing those benchmarks with ease. Conner is averaging 4.0 YPC in the first half and a whopping 5.5 YPC in the second half with the second quarter being the only quarter of football that Conner is averaging less than four yards per rush.
Whether the offense decides to huddle or no huddle, Conner has also maintained similar splits in his production. When the offense huddles, Conner is running to the tune of 4.7 YPC and when Ben Roethlisberger elects to go to no huddle, the running back maintains a 4.5 YPC. And while many will have you believe that the running game struggles when operating out of shotgun, Conner has actually performed better when Roethlisberger is lined up in shotgun rather than under center. In shotgun formation, the former Pitt Panther is averaging 5.6 yards per carry as opposed to 4.0 when Roethlisberger is under center.
As the season progresses week by week, the notion that Conner is just a fill in for Bell is quickly being erased. That notion may only be kept alive because of two games this season where Conner struggled mightily. Both those games came early in the season and both of those games saw the Steelers crumble in defeat. Conner’s struggles in those games were less about his ability and more about the Steelers’ being forced to play catch up, thus removing the need to establish the run game. In the two home losses to the Ravens and Chiefs, he rushed for just 36 yards on 17 carries.
For the Steelers, the equation for success has been demonstrated over the last month. Jump out to an early lead or keep the game within enough reach that the run game is not rendered obsolete. This is a team that can win on the arm of Roethlisberger but the last month has proven that this is a team that is at their strongest when Conner and the ground game gets going.