James Conner has proven a lot since taking over as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting running back with Le’Veon Bell continuing his holdout. He was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week on Wednesday, and most recently was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Month in the month of October.
He has broken down misconceptions of his game. Once thought of a liability in pass protection, Conner has shown he is more than capable of protecting Ben Roethlisberger when necessary. Some thought he couldn’t catch the football out of the backfield, yet he is proving on a weekly basis he is more than competent in this regard.
In fact, on our most recent podcast we talked about how there were things Conner does better than Bell, considering everyone just compares Conner to Bell’s skill set. He runs downhill better than Bell, has better balance after contact and has a better burst to break off long runs.
In my opinion, Conner has proven he is every bit the player Bell is/was, and in some instances, more complete. However, as most assume, we know what happens when you assume, if/when Bell returns he will eventually take over the starting duties, after splitting time with Conner when he first returns.
But what if Bell doesn’t show? Conner has shown he is more than capable of carrying the torch, but he can put an exclamation point on his work this Sunday when the Steelers travel to play the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in Maryland.
Throughout Bell’s career, since 2013 for those who don’t remember when he was drafted, Bell has been very hit-or-miss when facing the Ravens.
In 9 games Bell has gone over 100 yards just three times vs. the Ravens, and was held below 80 yards rushing 5 times. He has totaled 7 TDs vs. Baltimore, but his averages show very modest numbers against the team’s biggest rival. Bell averaged 17.7 carries a game, and 80 yards a game in those 9 contests.
There are a lot of factors which come into play when talking about rushing stats vs. the Ravens. First, the Ravens typically have a very good run-stopping defense, and getting going against them isn’t an easy task. Second, would be the play of the offensive line. There are games when Terrell Suggs and company dominate the line of scrimmage, and no matter who was in the backfield would be able to make anything happen. Lastly, the play calling certainly would be a huge contributor to the success, or failure, of a running backs production on the ground in any given game.
In Conner’s rookie season, in two games vs. Baltimore, he carried the ball just 6 times, for a total of 32 rushing yards. This year, the Week 4 matchup saw Conner only get the football 9 times, for 19 yards, as the team got away from the run early after falling to a 14-0 deficit early in the first quarter.
A solid performance against this Ravens defense, which is a very good unit, would be a tremendous lift for not only the Steelers’ offense, but for Conner as he hopes to continue to prove he is not just the future of the running back position for the Steelers, but the man who should be the starter even if Bell shows up in the latter portions of the regular season.
There is nothing Steelers fans would love more than to have Conner be considered a ‘Raven Killer’ throughout his career. Going into M&T Bank Stadium, a place the Steelers have struggled, and putting together a memorable performance will be a huge step in the right direction.