Let me first start off by addressing my intentions. I am not here to talk about James Conner’s ability or lack of ability to stay on the field. His durability issues have been talked about enough. What I am hoping to do is remind everyone what exactly Conner can do when he is on the field and why it may be too early to throw in the towel on him.
Now, obviously Conner did not have the 2019 season that he likely envisioned; in fact many members of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense can likely say the same. Whether due to injuries, poor quarterback play or a possible regression from the offensive line, the numbers just were not there for Conner. Though there still were flashes from him, especially in the form of broken tackles.
— Daniel Valente (@StatsGuyDaniel) May 15, 2020
While 2019 was mildly disappointing there were still glimpses of the runner that Conner is. That runner is a running back who brings the potential to break a ton of tackles. The fourth year running back runs with incredible toughness and was able to show flashes of his 2018 form at times. Speaking of 2018, that is also an important footnote when analyzing the impact that the Steelers’ running back brings to the field.
According to Pro Football Reference, Conner was tied for 7th among all running backs with 20 broken tackles in 2018. His 451 rushing yards after contact were also 13th most among all running backs, which means that 46.3-percent of his 2018 rushing yardage came after contact. The reviews from Pro Football Focus are even more astonishing.
RBs with 50+ broken tackles in 2018 (PFF):
Saquon Barkley (71)
James Conner (60)
Adrian Peterson (56)
Christian McCaffrey (53) 👀
Kareem Hunt (53)
Melvin Gordon (52)
Chris Carson (50) pic.twitter.com/aeH5adTNO6
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) May 3, 2019
Pro Football Focus has credited the Steelers’ running back with 60 broken tackles over the course of the 2018 season, second to only Saquon Barkley. While this is very impressive, it would also not be a stretch to say that Conner could have overtaken Barkley had he not injured his ankle in a matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers later in the year.
James Conner played in every game from Weeks 1-13 last year before suffering an ankle injury.
Most broken tackles among all RBs during that span (PFF):
Conner (57) 👀
Saquon Barkley (57)
Kareem Hunt (53) pic.twitter.com/1ViRh92p8Z
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) May 10, 2019
Up until week 13, Conner was tied with Barkley for the league lead in broken tackles with 57. Who knows how this would have transpired down the stretch had he not injured his ankle.
Going back to 2018 seems like an unusual approach when trying to find optimism for a 2020 bounce back year for Conner but it does serve a few purposes. It is a helpful reminder just who the running back is when surrounded with an adequate offensive line and quarterback play. It is also a reminder to the quality of running back he can be when healthy (more on that in a bit).
It is easy to get discouraged when looking into Conner’s future outlook but there is recent evidence that the fourth year running back could be due for a rebound. The return of Ben Roethlisberger should boost the entire offense which should have defenses respect the pass more than they did in 2019.
Now all that is left for Conner is to stay healthy. While that has been his biggest detractor through his early career, if he can stay healthy, he is still a quality running back who runs with brute force capable of garnering additional yardage for his team. Now the only question that remains is if he can stay on the field to prove it.