The Pittsburgh Steelers in recent years have had the great fortune of having at their disposal some of the best running back performances in the league, first courtesy of Le’Veon Bell and now this season from James Conner, the second-year running back who just set a team record with 10 touchdowns from scrimmage in eight games.
Entering tonight’s game against the Carolina Panthers, Conner is second only to Todd Gurley in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, though Conner has the most explosive runs in the league with eight, Gurley among three running backs who have seven.
With Bell reportedly back in Pittsburgh, the Steelers will likely have two running backs at their disposal within the next couple of weeks, though obviously nobody should be thinking about seeing him tonight against the Panthers at Heinz Field.
Not that that is doing Panthers Head Coach Ron Rivera any favors. The leader of the 6-2 NFC South team said that he wouldn’t want to face either back, but still had to worry about Conner. And his linebackers, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, have taken notice too.
“He’s playing lights out right now”, Davis told reporters earlier this week. Conner has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the past four games and has scored seven touchdowns in that span. “He’s a guy who’s taking full advantage of the opportunity with Le’Veon being out. He’s making everybody totally forget about Le’Veon around there, if you ask me”.
Beyond that, the second-year running back has also been a threat in the passing game, which would obviously concern the men at their position. He already has four games of over 50 receiving yards on the year and is closing in on 400 total yards with 38 receptions and a touchdown.
Kuechly said of Conner, “he’s a beast”, also complimenting the Steelers’ offensive line. “They are really good up front – they’re big and physical. They work really together, but that guy is really good. He’s playing with a lot of confidence”, he said. “He is the head this year, and he’s taken the bull by the horns”.
The former Defensive Player of the Year acknowledged the Pitt back’s receiving chops, saying that “he’s like one of these new age backs where they are good running the ball, but he can catch the ball and cause some mismatches as well”.
The Panthers obviously have their own second-year, mismatch-causing back in Christian McCaffrey. The 2017 eighth-overall pick has 502 rushing yards and 378 receiving yards over the course of the first eight games, to go along with five total touchdowns. He had more receiving yards (651) than rushing yards (435) as a rookie in 2017, with seven scores.