There has been a lot of discussion about James Conner over the past few days, both amongst ourselves and globally as well, and not without good reason. For the third game in a row, he has topped 100 yards on the ground with a pair of touchdowns, and he posted over 200 yards from scrimmage as he has spearheaded the Pittsburgh Steelers’ three-game winning streak.
One of the things that we here specifically have discussed has been how he—or really the offense—has been less effective overall running the football during the first halves of games, though that has improved. Conversely, of course, you can say that he gets better as the game goes on.
While he is averaging 4.2 yards per carry in the first quarter overall, strong performances in Weeks Five and Six tilt the scales. He only averages 3.8 yards in the second quarter, but jumps up to 6.1 in the third, and 5.2 yards in the fourth quarter.
This being Pittsburgh, that has naturally drawn comparisons to a certain former Steelers running back, many likening his efforts to Jerome Bettis, the second Hall of Famer the team has had at the position. He was asked about that yesterday.
“That’s a good comparison. You know, with Jerome, he’s legendary”, he said in acknowledging the honor of being spoken of in the same breath as the big man. “Really, just our main thing is doing our job. I’m really just doing that. I run the same way first quarter to fourth quarter really, so I’m just trying to run hard”.
In a way, he was kind of refuting the notion that he gets strong as the game goes on, in saying that his running style nor approach deviates from his first snap from his last. But what does change over the course of that time period is the defense’s health and willingness to take the pounding that a back such as Conner is willing to deliver.
The second-year runner has proven to be about as physical a runner as there is in the league right now, for example knocking Cincinnati Bengals safety Shawn Williams out of the game back in Week Six, but he is also surprisingly aloof and light on his feet.
Take a look at some of his long runs this year (he has more than you might think), and you’ll see that they have been, by and large, a product of his ability to break tackles with his athleticism and shiftiness rather than with speed or brute strength.
The truth is, he is like Bettis in that way. Even though Bettis was even a far bigger back than is Conner, who has slimmed down since entering the league rather than bulking up, he was also incredibly nimble for a man his size, a trait that routinely gets overlooked in discussing his legacy.