While we’re all talking about how great James Conner has been for the Pittsburgh Steelers so far at running back, I think we need to pay a little more focus to the fact that he has been absolutely a gem as a pass catcher. While it’s true that running backs league-wide are becoming bigger and bigger contributors to the passing game, I don’t think that anybody expected Conner to have this much of an impact.
In seven games, he already has 323 receiving yards, and he has produced that number on 31 receptions. Over the course of a full season, that would prorate to 71 receptions for 738 yards, averaging over 46 receiving yards per game.
While he wasn’t utilized as a pass-catcher while at Pitt, and he had a reputation of not exactly being that type of running back when he was coming out of college, Conner told reporters yesterday that it is an aspect of his game that he has never doubted. He felt that he earned that reputation because of a bad preseason game during his rookie season.
“In the preseason, I had a game where I had all those drops. That really wasn’t me. I wasn’t looking the ball in”, he said about his ‘improvement’ in the passing game from year one to year two. “I’ve always trusted my hands. Really just looking the ball in now. That’s about it. I’ve always trusted my hands. I just had that one game in the preseason where I got labeled as a typical running back who can’t catch. That game is behind me now. I think I’m doing alright”.
When asked about his scouting report coming out of college and about his lack of pass-catching ability, he said, “I’ve never really heard that knock. Like I said, I’ve always trusted them”. This, of course, means that he didn’t actually read those scouting reports, because they were there.
He is certainly proving them wrong, however. After a five-catch, 66-yard showing, he now has three games in which he has gained over 50 yards in the air, with another game in which he had 48, and he is averaging more than 10 yards per catch.
Among running backs with at least 250 receiving yards this season (11 of them), that is the fourth-highest average behind Tarik Cohen, Kareem Hunt, and Todd Gurley. His yards per game ranks sixth and his yards per target is fourth.
His 323 receiving yards is already the 30th-most by a running back in a single season in franchise history, and he is well on pace to climb into the top five, of which Le’Veon Bell currently occupies three slots. He almost surely won’t surpass Bell’s 854 yards from 2014 (he would have to average about 60 yards per game from here on out), but Ray Mathews’ 762 from the 1955 season is within reach.