The Pittsburgh Steelers are off to their best start since 1978, and their 5-0 record will be tested to the brink in Week 7 when they face the also 5-0 Tennessee Titans in Nashville. But throughout the team’s perfect start, the main talking point on offense has been Ben Roethlisberger.
And rightfully so.
Roethlisberger is coming off season-ending elbow surgery, and his play has steadily increased throughout the 2020 regular season. However, has Roethlisberger’s stellar play overshadowed James Conner’s season?
The main aspect of Conner’s game which is often discussed by fans would be his health. His inability to play in 16 games since being drafted in the 2017 NFL Draft. Nonetheless, Conner has quietly been putting together a tremendous season.
Just look at his stats through five games this season:
5 games, 75 rushes, 369 yards, 4.9 yards per carry, 4 TD, 59 yard long
When you compare these statistics from just five games to his previous seasons, you can see the kind of start he is having.
2019: 464 yards, 4 TDs, 20 yard long
2018: 973 yards, 12 TDs, 30 yard long
2017: 114 yards, 0 TD, 23 yard long
During his Thursday press conference, via Zoom, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner was asked about what Conner being an underrated member of the offense.
“When James [Conner] is healthy, he’s really a good back.” Fichtner said. “He is all three downs capable. He can excel in short yardage and go on. He is a powerful runner. When he is basically healthy, he’s protecting the ball. He’s finding creases. He’s moving piles. We’ve seen his ability to catch out of the backfield, and I value the ability to protect our quarterback.”
It is without a doubt exciting to see Conner remaining healthy, and while that can change in the blink of an eye, Fichtner acknowledges the work Conner has put in to remain healthy.
“Like I said, James has been healthy, he’s worked awful hard maintaining his body and doing the things he’s supposed to be doing. That’s exciting.”
When you are talking about keeping a running back healthy, one of the things play callers need to keep in the back of their heads are the amount of carries the running back gets. What is the perfect number of carries for Fichtner?
About 12-18 carries.
“I think any runner if they can get the majority of touches anywhere in that 12- to 18-type touch. If they’re kind of in a flow and you have a good feel, or they probably have a good feel or maybe the feel didn’t come to them that day. It’s nice to have other backs that can do selected other things.”
With that said, Fichtner also realizes keeping Conner healthy means getting other backs like Benny Snell Jr., Anthony McFarland Jr. and Jaylen Samuels involved more than they have been so far this year.
“I wish we could play some of the backs more.” Fichtner added. “When you have a hot hand, you go with it. Like I said, James has done nothing to come off the field, but knowing and given the circumstances that when he is fresh, he is a bull and that is awesome. We have to keep him fresh, and we have to substitute other guys. We have other guys that are very capable.”
While Roethlisberger’s season has been tremendous, one of the reasons he has succeeded as much as he has is in large part because of Conner’s, and the ground game, success. Keeping that going will be critical for the Steelers’ success for the rest of the 2020 regular season.
Stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes on the Steelers as they prepare for the Tennessee Titans in Week 7.