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James Conner’s value to the Steelers goes far beyond rushing yards

James Conner’s return gave the Steelers offense a boost in Week 16.

Indianapolis Colts v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

James Conner played only 23 snaps from the start of the Week 12 game against the Ravens through the Steelers Week 15 game against the Bengals. The four worst offensive games of the Steelers season he was largely uninvolved in. Conner played 23 snaps against the Bills, ran the ball 10 times for 18 yards and was never targeted. The Steelers are undefeated in games where Conner catches a pass.

Am I saying James Conner is the most important player in this offense? No. Far from it. He isn’t the reason the offense succeeds or fails, but he is a part of that reason. Conner isn’t a great running back, but he is a good one, largely because of his versatility.

Conner didn’t play a lot early in the game, the Steelers were rotating backs, easing him back into the lineup. Conner only touched the ball three times in the first half, but his versatility still held value.

1st quarter, 8:26. James Conner is the running back.

Conner is motioned out of the backfield, pulling a linebacker with him. It is clear the Colts are in man, and pulling a linebacker out of the middle of the field helps create space for the screen-esque slant the Steelers run for Diontae Johnson on this play. It also makes it easier for the lineman blocking, because they don’t have to try and figure out which linebacker is on Conner when they look to block the rushers. This kind of motion would work against man defense no matter who the running back was, but this play helps explain some of why the running backs weren’t getting the ball much, as it was more valuable pulling players out of the box than it was using those backs.

2nd quarter, 3:56. James Conner is the running back, Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the same side.

This play does a better job of showing Conner’s gravity in the passing game. Khari Willis (#37 Colts) comes down to handle the outside zone. Conner’s route into the flat pulls him farther outside and creates a nice gap for Johnson to catch the ball in. Conner is a bigger threat on these routes than either Benny Snell or Jaylen Samuels and it helps Ben Roethlisberger get an easy throw at a time in the game where his accuracy wasn’t great.

2nd quarter, 2:33. James Conner is the running back.

And that is why you want to stick close to Conner in the passing game. Conner catches the ball 4 yards from the first down line, and the linebacker is 5 yards from the first down line. Conner gets those 4 yards and 8 more. Conner is a dangerous open field runner, and that makes him an important target on passing plays.

Ben Roethilberger trusts Conner on these passes, he can dump the ball off and know Conner will make the catch (he catches over 85% of his targets) and be a dangerous weapon with the ball.

But that’s not the only level of comfort James Conner provides.

3rd quarter, 1:39. James Conner is the running back.

Conner reads the blocking and the rush, crosses the pocket and stands up the rusher in line with the rest of the blockers, keeping the pocket clean and giving his quarterback plenty of room to step into this throw that drew a pass interference penalty. In the second half Conner played most of the running back snaps, and it was noticeable that Ben Roethlisberger gained confidence in the Steelers pass blocking and played much better as the game went on. James Conner played a part in that.

3rd quarter, 1:03. James Conner is the running back.

Again Conner picks up yards after the catch, this time dragging multiple defenders on a nicely designed screen pass.

4th quarter, 11:37. James Conner is the running back.

With Ben Roethlisberger able to step into throws and the passing game taking off, the run game re-emerged a bit. This play is just a 3 yard run for a first down, but look at the defense, 6 defenders in the box versus 6 blockers. I don’t know why the Steelers had both guards head upfield on this play instead of doubling the play side defensive tackle, but Conner still picked up enough for the first down.

4th quarter, 9:45. James Conner is the running back.

You know, a double team like the one that sees Kevin Dotson driving the defensive tackle 5 yards to the right as Pouncey peels off to find a linebacker on this 12 yard run. Look at the formation before the snap.

The Steelers are in pistol formation with double stacks out wide. The stress this formation is putting on the defense is incredible. The Steelers love running those pseudo tunnel screens where the front receiver blocks the corner and the back receiver catches the ball heading forward, to the Colts can’t just have one defender close and one deep on the outside, so they defend the stacks with triangles, one defender with slight outside leverage, one well to the inside to cut off any quick passes inside and one deep in case both receivers go deep. This leaves 5 on 5 in the box at the snap, and with Kevin Dotson dominating, it’s an easy 12 yards for Conner.

This isn’t Conner at 100% either, he’s back from injury, but he wasn’t breaking tackles like we are used to seeing and his cuts weren’t as quick as they usually are. Even when he isn’t 100%, Conner is a really good running back in an offense that is having success passing the ball downfield, because he takes advantage of the extra space better than a lot of backs do.

4th quarter, 9:04. James Conner is the running back.

Trailing by 3 in the fourth quarter the Steelers have a second and fifteen. Who do they go to? James Conner. He gains ten yards again on another nice screen pass. You can see his open-field vision and also how much he was struggling with his cuts in this game, he has to slow down to change direction instead of just planting his foot and exploding the other way like we are used to seeing.

He’s not 100%, but he still elevated the offense.

4th quarter, 8:19. James Conner is the running back.

That run set up a makeable 3rd and 5 to continue the drive and the Steelers go right back to Conner on this beauty of a call. The Colts are trying to get back into their single high safety that was working so well in the first half, and on the television broadcast Tony Romo remarked that the defensive end should have been dropping wide instead of straight back on this play.

If you are a film room regular you may know that that end dropping straight back is one of the adjustments teams have made to the Steelers offense, and you can see here how his drop clogs the passing lane to Diontae Johnson’s slant route on that side. It also puts the end right in the way of Darius Leonard who is covering James Conner on this play. With Leonard’s angle disrupted, Conner gains the first down and pushes the ball into field goal range in a three point game.

James Conner wasn’t full strength in week 16, and he wasn’t the spark that reignited the Steelers offense, but he brought back to this team versatility that none of the other backs can match, and helped his quarterback gain the level of comfort we saw in the second half when Ben Roethlisberger reignited the offense.