On Wednesday, Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week, following a stellar Sunday performance against the Cleveland Browns in which he posted 146 yards on the ground on 24 carries along with two touchdowns, also adding five receptions for 66 more yards for a total of 212 yards from scrimmage, the first 200-yard game of his career.
That was merely the perpetuation of a trend that culminated in him yesterday being named the AFC Offensive Player of the Month for the month of October—in spite of the fact that he only played three games.
But it was a hell of a run. Over those three contests, he registered 367 rushing yards on 64 attempts, averaging 5.7 yards per carry with six rushing touchdowns, to go along with 159 receiving yards on 13 receptions for a total of 526 yards from scrimmage, or 175 yards per game.
This run has gotten the attention of many, including Pro Football Focus, which published an article yesterday in which they make the case that the second-year back has “given Pittsburgh every reason to turn their backs on Le’Veon Bell”.
Bell, not currently under contract, was the Steelers’ most recent starting running back between the 2013 and 2017 seasons. Though he was a very prolific player, in fact averaging more yards from scrimmage per game than any player in NFL history, Conner has far outpaced him in terms of producing scores.
“Compared against Bell’s monster year that came a season ago”, author Austin Gayle argues, “Conner outpaces the (former) Steelers lead back in efficiency nearly across the board”. He cites the number of missed tackles that Conner has forced, as well as his total yards per touch, as being superior to Bell’s numbers from last season, though in fairness to the latter, 2017 was not his best year from an efficiency standpoint by any means after missing the entirety of the offseason.
“Put simply, Conner is doing more than filling in for Bell; he’s outperforming him”, Gayle concludes. “The intrigue of having Conner and Bell as a tandem is legitimate, but Conner is more than just a hot hand – he’s the better hand, and Pittsburgh should treat him as such”.
Not to diminish in any way what Conner has done, but I would like to play devil’s advocate a bit here and compare his 2018 season to a more productive period for Bell. Conner is currently averaging 5.8 yards per touch. Bell averaged 5.7 yards per touch from 2014 to 2016. Bell also averaged roughly the same yards after contact per touch from the same time period as well.
With that said, it’s pretty clear that what Conner has shown so far this season is obviously qualified as being sufficient for a full-time starting running back. And even that Bell isn’t even here and won’t be here next year, it’s a pretty easy decision to turn their backs.