James Conner didn't do much on the ground in Weeks 2 through 4, and he was being blamed for the majority of it.
People thought Conner was the issue?
He wasn't the issue -- one of the issues was play-calling. The Steelers ran far too many plays to the inside which didn't always suit Conner’s strengths, and now that they're getting him outside in space, he can use his balance and burst to do much more than just running between the tackles every play. The other issue was simply offensive-line play. Marcus Gilbert and David DeCastro each missing games was no help to Conner at all. The Steelers overall have been among the league’s lower half of run-blocking teams according to PFF, and it's clear to see. Conner was hit behind the line too many times over the past three weeks.
Finally, with a fully healthy line for the first time since Week 1, James Conner found more success than he has at anytime this season, and you can tell he's a starting-caliber running back. This guy is 100% a starter. He has all the aspects you want in a RB. First, vision and burst, Exhibit A:
He's got vision folks. That slight tuck inside on the zone allowed him to burst straight through there for a huge gain. Great running. pic.twitter.com/9p4HsNQTKE— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) October 8, 2018
Beautiful tuck inside by Conner on this play as he reads that hole opening up at the last second. If he doesn’t read that, it's a decent gain but nowhere near the run he gets. I love how once he gets to the second level you see that next-level burst from him. He absolutely can be a big- play threat, and that shows differentiation from Le’Veon Bell as a whole. Not everyone is born with vision, but Conner has it and it's only improved as the season has gone on.
But where Conner has really improved is in the receiving game. He has 22 catches for 239 yards receiving. Compare that to last year when he could barely catch, but now he's motioning out wide and catching passes for first downs. His evolution from just a pure runner to a lean, receiving back has been a fun transition to watch as this season has progressed.
Motion him outside and he has soft hands and then grinds out an extra 2-3 yards at the end. This is stuff Le'Veon Bell would do. pic.twitter.com/slxu9k6X0a— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) October 8, 2018
The Steelers love to run plays like this with Le’Veon Bell out of the slot. It's a simple bunch-set with an inside trailing route as the two receivers on the right side are “screening” for Conner to take this quick catch and get the first down. The best part, aside from the easy catch Conner makes away from his body, is the extra yards he fights for at the end of the play. A high level of effort plus a high level of talent will get you places.
But that's not even the best part of Conner’s game. By far, it's his balance through contact. The balance he shows is at an elite level, no matter how you slice it. He has some incredible strength and power to go with that strong center of gravity. It's not always easy to find players with balance like this.
Vision by cutting it up inside once he hits the LOS and then incredible balance through contact on that spin. Guy then just will not be taken down. Conner runs so hard man. pic.twitter.com/nzYG0BFZWb— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) October 8, 2018
They ran this pitch-play with much success on Sunday. I don't necessarily like the play, but it gets Conner in space and allows him to take advantage of his incredible balance and burst. You can see it all on display on this particular play, and he just keeps powering through.
Conner was truly impressive vs. the Falcons in Week 5. But there was a play combining all of his talents into one, and it was an absolute beauty to watch. This one might make top-5 RB plays of the year folks.
Balance. Power. Speed. Vision. This screen has it all. Great balance through contact and he just pounds through about 8 Falcons defenders. This is one of the most impressive contact balance plays you will see this season. Whew James Conner. pic.twitter.com/tjHIpUh7tD— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) October 8, 2018
Hello James Conner. He runs straight over people, cuts it up to get the best lane to the first down and then powers through others to get even more yardage. Backup RBs simply don't do things like this. I'm not saying James Conner will be a star, but he's absolutely a starting RB, and certainly isn't the problem with the Steelers’ running game.
Part of it was how the Steelers fell down early in most of the games when Conner was ineffective but, in reality, Conner always grinded out as many yards as he could. He's never been, and never will be, the problem.
This guy is not only a great story, but a great football player too.