The Pittsburgh Steelers are now training camp, following the most unique offseason in the NFL since at least World War II. While it didn’t involve a player lockout, teams still did not have physical access to their players, though they were at least able to meet with them virtually.
Even training camp will look much different from the norm, and a big part of that will be the fact that there will be no games along the way to prepare for. There will be no preseason played in 2020, so the first time the Steelers take the field in 2020 will be for the season opener against the New York Giants.
Before we get there, however, there are a number of issues that are outstanding on this team, and this year’s edition of training camp will not provide the level of thoroughness that teams are normally used to in trying to answer those questions.
Questions like, what is the starting offensive line going to look like? Will it include Zach Banner or Chukwuma Okorafor? Who will be the primary nose tackle? How will Ben Roethlisberger look—and the other quarterbacks as well? Now, we even have questions about whether or not players will be in quarantine.
These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.
Question: What percentage of snaps will James Conner play in 2020 when he is healthy?
Mike Tomlin is on record, year after year, stating that he is a workhorse-back kind of guy. From Willie Parker to Rashard Mendenhall to Le’Veon Bell to James Conner, when he has a guy, he uses him, and he uses him a lot. Even when Bell was injured, he used DeAngelo Williams as ‘the guy’, and he damn near had a Pro Bowl season (I still think he should have gotten in).
During his Pro Bowl season in 2018, under normal circumstances, when healthy, without short weeks, Conner pretty regularly topped 80 percent of the offensive snaps for the game, often hitting 85 or even 90 percent of the workload, for that matter.
But that wasn’t the workload he was getting last season. He only approached 80 percent in two games at the time of the first significant injury against the Miami Dolphins in Week Eight. Prior to that, he had been closer to playing about two thirds of the snaps.
Now, the Steelers have a more experienced backfield, especially with Benny Snell in his second season and in improved physical conditioning. Jaylen Samuels is back healthy, and then you add two speed backs in Kerrith Whyte and Anthony McFarland, at least one of whom will be on the roster, plus the veteran Wendell Smallwood.
They have the personnel to prevent themselves from grinding Conner into the ground. That doesn’t mean they won’t. But they have enough backs to share the workload.