The Pittsburgh Steelers entered Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars struggling significantly on the ground on the offensive side of the ball. After starting off the season as arguably a top-10 running team, recording four 100-yard rushing games in the first five, they had been held to under 100 in the last four—including under 50 in the last three.
That would not be the case going up against a one- win Jaguars team, as the Steelers had nearly that by the end of the first quarter, thanks largely to an explosive run from featured runner James Conner to begin their second drive, which started from the shadow of their own end zone that went for 25 yards.
You knew that things would be different early in the second quarter when it looked as though the Jaguars had Conner dead to rights several yards into the backfield, only to see the fourth-year back slip to the outside of two defenders and manage to turn a four-yard loss into a two-yard gain. Conner had multiple losses of significant yardage last week against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Although there was some drag, and some unimpressive running by Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland mixed in, Conner would finally drag the team across the 50-yard mark for the game ahead of the two-minute warning in the second quarter, and it came in appropriate fashion.
On the first play following an interception and return from safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, Conner got the ball on a handoff to the left. With nothing there, he was still able to reverse field and catch the right sideline for 17 yards, which gave him 56 for the game on seven carries.
In recent weeks, when the defense has gotten into the backfield, there hasn’t been a backside cutback opportunity. Conner had those opportunities a couple of times down in Jacksonville, and that has certainly been a part of the difference, allowing him to make plays that aren’t there.
It’s not the way you want to run, and clearly a symptom of the reality that the running game still has a lot of work—it doesn’t help that tight ends Vance McDonald and Zach Gentry were unavailable for most of the game, limiting blocking options—but you get the yardage where and when you can.
By the end of the first half, Conner had 68 yards on the ground on eight carries. The team as a whole had 77 on 14 attempts, averaging 5.5 yards per carry, but that included a one-yard Snell touchdown run that put the team up 17-3. He would add a 17-yard run on 4th and 1 for his 10th carry of the game.
For the first time in five weeks, they crossed the 100-yard mark as a team, finishing with 106 yards on 27 carries with one touchdown. Conner finished with 89 yards on 13 attempts. It wasn’t pretty by any means, and it took some individual excellence from the backfield to make some of those plays work, but it’s an important step back in the right direction.