James Conner was one of the surprises of the 2018 season around the NFL. That was largely because he ended up starting 13 more games than was expected due to the fact that Le’Veon Bell never decided to show up, but it wasn’t just his being on the field that took people off-guard. It was his performance itself.
And according to Pro Football Focus, a lot of his work came ‘off-guard’ so to speak, though not limited to guard. What I mean is that the, and the Steelers offense, had a strong amount of success running the ball behind pulling blockers, which generally is the guards, particularly David DeCastro.
These RBs racked up yards following a pulling lead blocker last season. pic.twitter.com/n0sR19rdp8
— PFF (@PFF) July 17, 2019
The site recently shared a short video on Twitter highlighting the league’s leading rushers behind pulling blockers during the 2018 season, and Conner gained more yards than anybody else with 509 yards. Second was Christian McCaffrey with 487 yards, followed by Lamar Miller with 381, Melvin Gordon with 374, and then Marlon Mack with 342.
In the Steelers’ offense, of course, every lineman has to pull. Maurkice Pouncey has been pulling regularly since his rookie season, but even Ramon Foster, Alejandro Villanueva, and whoever is playing right tackle that day have pulled. Matt Feiler is actually pretty good at it, both at guard and tackle.
According to Pro Football Focus, Conner had his most success rushing off right end, with 36 carries for 225 yards, averaging 6.3 yards per carry, two touchdowns and six rushes of 10 or more yards. He also gained 178 yards off left end on 32 carries with another two touchdowns and another six carries of 10 or more yards. These numbers would on the surface support the notion of the team’s success on the pull.
It is, of course, one of their staple running plays, and has been so, with success, for the past half-decade or more with DeCastro really bringing it back into the forefront. Bell and every other running back during that span has benefitted from it.
Regardless of Mike Munchak’s departure, there is no reason to believe that pulling linemen will be any less of a part of the Steelers’ offense in 2019, now with Shaun Sarrett at the helm in the offensive line room.
And provided that they continue to run it with success, as they have over the course of most of the past decade, it will remain a featured part of the running game. Conner showed that he was capable of running well in that look, as did Jaylen Samuels, so expect the Steelers to be among the league leaders in rushing yards behind pulling blockers again—even if they continue to run less than almost everybody else in the NFL.