What's up with Steelers RB James Conner? I have witnessed players hitting the rookie wall enough over the years to realize it does happen to some players, but Conner isn't a rookie anymore. Or is he?
After hardly seeing the field during his actual rookie campaign, he has suddenly become the Steelers next star running back and therefore his workload has exploded. He has definitely made the most of the opportunity, at least up to November.
Coming off an incredible string of performances that garnered him the AFC Offensive Player of the Month for October, Conner's usage and production have plummeted. There appears to be a myriad of reasons why.
Being a starting running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers is pressure enough, especially when you add the ravenous fan base and the yearly expectations for the team, without adding any self inflicted pressure to the equation. It seems Conner has been feeling the effects of just that with his recent uncharacteristic performances.
Right after last season's star running back missed a league mandated report date and decided to sit out the whole season, I watched Bucky Brooks discuss the impact of that decision for the Pittsburgh Steelers on the NFL Network. He brought up an interesting theory on how that decision could affect James Conner, and admittedly I thought he was dead wrong at the time.
He speculated that Conner would now feel increased pressure in knowing that the cavalry wasn't getting ready to ride over that hill and save the day like everyone had been expecting. Now he was the one who was expected to be the hero and save the day, but this would be his first time experiencing those expectations at the pro level.
Part of being a star is being able to handle being the star, and everything that goes with it. Conner has went from being a feel good story to being the main story. Every action and reaction is scrutinized, and every mistake magnified. If you play well you are just doing your job, but if you falter occasionally you can rest assured the hounds will be nipping at your heels. One more thing to look forward to, you will forever be compared to the man who held your position before you, whether it's good or bad. That comes with the territory.
Bucky Brooks predicted that Conner would struggle with these new expectations. Conner promptly goes out and, Bam, he is in concussion protocol after the Panthers game. Although Conner was cleared to practice the following week and never missed any game action, something definitely seems a little off in his performance.
Concussions can affect your vision, balance, and equilibrium. That could help explain a couple of dropped passes in key situations against the Jaguars, or last week's costly fumble after an impressive catch and run. He wasn't utilized fully in the running game against Denver for some unknown reason, but was effective when given the opportunity to tote the rock. His pass protection through out the game was excellent, which has become the norm.
I don't believe Conner has hit any imaginary wall due to increased usage because he hardly carried the ball in a few games this season due to the score or other game situations. Exhaustion is not an issue, and he came to camp in phenomenal shape.
I believe Conner's decreased usage and production are a result of his own success. Defensive coordinators are designing game plans specifically to stop him, because the Steelers offense is most effective when Conner is running wild over, around, and through their defenses.
It is up to Randy Fichtner and the Steelers offense to adjust accordingly and commit to establishing the running game each week. That is when the Steelers display their true potential.