Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner was already named the AFC Offensive Player of the Month for the month of October as a result of his three games’ of work when he rushed for another 107 yards and 56 receiving yards on 31 touches, with 163 yards from scrimmage.
It was the second game in a row in which he gained over 150 yards from scrimmage, and has averaged 30 touches per game since the bye week. Over the past four games, in which he has rushed for over 100 yards in each, he has 108 total touches, which is an average of 27 touches per game.
Said Conner after Sunday’s win, “I’m good. I feel good”. When it was pointed out to him what sort of workload he has weathered over the course of the past month, he simply said, “I’m built for it”.
Mike Tomlin, his head coach, echoed that sentiment in an equally simple way yesterday in response to a question on the topic by Aditi Kinkhabwala during his pre-game press conference. “I agree with him” is all he said.
I think it’s clear by now in Tomlin’s tenure as a head coach that he values the ability to make use of a featured back, which started with Willie Parker, continued with Rashard Mendenhall (his second first-round pick ever), and then saw its zenith with Le’Veon Bell.
But he is using Conner this year almost exactly where they left off with Bell, with a very high usage rate. He played 67 of 80 offensive snaps against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, for example, as they make sparse use of the backup running backs, and occasionally get him off the field for four-receiver sets.
Conner entered the league last season having earned a reputation during his college career for being a physical, powerful runner, listed at 233 pounds, though he has slimmed down some in his second season. While he is not shy about dealing a blow at the end of the run, he plays with more evasiveness than he is given credit for, similar to Bell, which allows him to absorb a higher volume of touches.
Of course, we got the first inkling from Bell since before the regular season started that he might actually be coming back to Pittsburgh, and if he does, that would provide the Steelers with the option of limiting putting too much of a burden on any one back, having two at their disposal who seem to be nearly equally capable.
Whether or not that actually happens and the Steelers choose to take that approach, neither Conner nor his head coach are publicly expressing any concern about the potential for putting a lot of mileage on the running back this season as they enter the second half of the year.