James Conner has just one fumble this season but woo boy, was it a costly one. Conner coughed up the football late in the 4th quarter of Sunday’s loss to the San Francisco 49ers, setting up their game-winning drive. The blame doesn’t fall all on Conner, that’s a bridge too far, but those late-game mistakes are brutal and not the first time it’s happened to him. Sunday’s outcome was reminiscent of Week 1 last year which found the Steelers blowing a 4th quarter lead to end in an uninspiring tie with the Cleveland Browns.
Though everyone, Mike Tomlin included, knows Conner’s gotta take care of the football, Tomlin isn’t over analyzing one mistake. Bad as it was.
“I don’t know if that’s the case,” he told Bob Pompeani when asked if the fumbles are hurting Conner’s progression. “I don’t know that we can put the ball on the ground ever. Particularly in those waning moments of the football game. So there’s a burden to bear there. but I don’t know if it’s something that’s stunting his growth as a player or limiting his productivity. I just think we all have to do a better job of running the ball and thoughtfully doing so.”
Through three games, Conner doesn’t even have 100 yards. On 34 carries, he has just 94 yards, an average of 2.9 yards per carry. He’s found the end zone only once, a short dive in Week 2.
Pittsburgh’s only one of four teams not to have a 100 yard rusher on the season: Washington, Cincinnati, and Miami are the other three. Poor company to keep; those four teams have a combined record of 0-12.
Tomlin cited injuries as one reason for the woeful rushing attack.
“Obviously we have some constraints relative of the people available to us particularly in-game last week as the tight ends started going down and Rosie not suited. That’s an element of play as well.”
Starting Mason Rudolph has an obvious hindrance on the run game too. Last week, the 49ers consistently stacked the box, giving Conner few run lanes and leaving linebackers unblocked time and time again. Prior to the fumble, Conner ran hard and got more yards than what was blocked, even if the box score – 13 carries, 43 yards – doesn’t look inspiring.
Despite the struggles, Tomlin wrapped things up with a vote of confidence in Conner’s favor.
“We got big time confidence in James. James wants to be a critical reason for us to be successful.”
The Steelers will face a Cincinnati Bengals’ run defense that’s been as poor as any in football. If the line can’t run on this group, they’re not going to do it versus anyone.