While I don’t think it was a great surprise that James Conner turned out to be a decent ball-carrier for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season when he was thrown into the fire in Le’Veon Bell’s absence, nobody was really anticipating what he ended up bringing to the passing game.
On 71 targets in 2018, Conner reeled in 55 receptions, producing 497 yards and one score through the air. He averaged nearly 40 receiving yards per game, as, you will remember, he missed three games late in the season. Prorating his numbers translates to 68 receptions for 612 yards over a 16-game workload.
And there’s no reason to think that Conner can’t be even better in the passing game in his second season as the full-time starter, given how relatively little in-game experience he had in that department. During his rookie season, he was targeted just once in the passing game, and if memory serves, it was more of a throwaway in the dirt than a true target.
The third-year back spoke to Pat Kirwan and Jim Miller on SiriusXM earlier this week about the upcoming season, and one of the first topics they delved into was the running back’s role in the passing game in Pittsburgh. “I think it’s just our offense”, he said. “A lot of backs have been successful in this offense, so the standard has been set. I’ve just got to keep up with that”.
With all due respect, I don’t believe that’s quite true. It’s rather a recent phenomenon that began with Bell, and that’s simply because he was so good at it that it became more of a staple in their offense. According to Pro Football Reference, the last Steelers back prior to Bell to record 400 receiving yards in a season was Merril Hoge in 1988, and he only did it once. Before him? John ‘Frenchy’ Fuqua in 1971. You have to go back to Tom Tracy, Ray Mathews, and Lynn Chandois in the 1950s to locate the other instances.
Be that as it may, while the running back hasn’t always been as big a part of the passing offense in Pittsburgh as it is now, that doesn’t change the fact that players like Conner and probably Jaylen Samuels are going to be important cogs in that area in 2019.
“We do make a big emphasis on getting out of our routes”, Conner said of the running back position working on the passing game. “Make sure the protection is clean first and just have an outlet for Ben. A lot of them are really just checkdowns, just being in the right spot for a little dump and try to get a little run after”.
One area in which he particularly excelled last season was after the catch, proving a great ability to make defenders miss when he got into open space, which allowed him to average nearly 10 yards per reception in spite of a very shallow average depth of target.