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Season Opener Shows James Conner Still The Workhorse, When There’s A Horse In The Barn

Although the snap count might not necessarily reveal it, the game circumstances made it clear that, at least for the time being, the Pittsburgh Steelers still view third-year running back James Conner as a workhorse as a ball carrier, receiver, and pass protector.

The Steelers ran 54 plays with a running back on the field (more on that in another article), and he was on the field for 33 of them. But his last snap came with five minutes to play. The team let Jaylen Samuels close out the game in the final five, where he picked up almost half of the total snaps that he played. And two of his other snaps came with Conner also on the field.

He only accounted for 14 touches on his 33 snaps, with 10 carries accumulating just 21 rushing yards, plus four receptions (on four targets) that tallied up to 44, a long gain of 23 yards. But Samuels had just three touches, including two carries for four yards and one reception for two yards.

Within the first 53 minutes of the game or so, there were only seven plays the Steelers ran in which the team had a running back on the field, and that running back was not Conner. He logged 28 snaps during that time, giving a roughly 3-to-1 ratio, though that also includes two snaps in a pony backfield in which both Conner and Samuels were on the field at the same time.

It remains to be seen ultimately how the running back situation sorts itself out. Perhaps there is still an opportunity, if earned, for Samuels to see more playing time. Perhaps he would have played more on Sunday, had the circumstances been different.

For example, against the New England Patriots, when the Steelers were running the two-minute offense, they adopted a five-receiver set while trailing 20-0, deciding just not to use any running backs or tight ends at all.

If the game were closer, would Randy Fichtner have considered using Samuels as the two-minute back? Leading up to the game, he did say of the second-year player that he was confident in his abilities as a pass protection and that he would block anyone the Patriots threw at him.

Fichtner also said, as I wrote about earlier today, that they had a plan in place to make more use of the pony backfield. That comment suggests that they do want to get more use out of Samuels, but not necessarily that they are interested in taking snaps away from Conner.

The 2018 Pro Bowler was on the field for 28 of 33 snaps run between the start of the game and the last snap that he played at the 6:43 minute mark in the fourth quarter in which the Steelers had at least running back in the lineup. If that doesn’t tell you the story, nothing does.

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