The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: James Conner will get 15-plus carries on Sunday.
Explanation: After returning from injury last week seemingly not too much worse for wear, it’s reasonable to expect that more responsibility will be placed on James Conner’s shoulders this week. On Sunday, he only totaled 12 touches, including eight carries, but he was successful doing it, with two 15-plus-yard runs.
While the Steelers were slow to get off the ground in the running game early one, Conner’s last two games that were close to full prior to Sunday featured him receiving 16 and 23 carries. Benny Snell had received 16 or more carries in three straight games prior to last week as well.
The team mysteriously shied away from the run game on Sunday in ways that don’t appear to entirely jive with their post-game explanations, but it’s hard to imagine them asking Devlin Hodges to throw 38 times again this week. The run-pass balance should be much closer to 50 percent, and Conner should be the lead back.
Put it all together, and you have the recipe for him seeing a strong workload of 15 or more carries. He had 15 or more carries in seven of his 13 games last year, and they only lost one of them, a late loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. They know they have to run the ball, and Conner is their best runner.
Their next opponent, however, also has a very good run defense. And the New York Jets just watched the Buffalo Bills and how they beat this team. They did, in part, coax the Steelers into throwing the ball more than they needed to, even though there was never a large disparity on the scoreboard. Expect that to factor into their gameplan.
Head coach Mike Tomlin also talked about wanting to have a more defined division of labor at the running back position. We could see more specialization of the backfield, which could eat into snaps that Conner would otherwise be getting, such as in short-yardage situations. Or perhaps they’ll simply want to continue to limit him some as long as it’s not needed.