James Conner had a bad season in 2019. No news flash there. His performance, like virtually all of his teammates on offense, suffered as collateral damage from the Ben Roethlisberger injury. Conner wasn’t particularly healthy in his own right, which impacted his play as well. It was a forgettable season, to say the least.
Conner’s struggles stemmed predominantly from an anemic passing game that encouraged opposing defenses to crowd the box to defend the run. He was contacted on average at 1.7 yards past the line of scrimmage, which was one of the worst numbers in the league and underscored the loaded boxes he faced. If you subtract his one big game against Miami where he rushed for 145 yards on 23 carries, he never rushed for more than 55 yards in a game while averaging a subpar 3.4 yards per carry.
That Miami game is instructive, however, as it is the only game in 2019 where both Conner and since-departed fullback Rosie Nix took the field together. Nix missed all but three games last year and in two of them Nix and Conner did not play together (Nix got no snaps on offense in the opener at New England while Conner was out with an injury for the game Nix played against Indianapolis). Against Miami, however, Nix got 19 snaps on offense, which tied for his most of 2018-2019. Conner was the primary beneficiary of this, rushing for the second highest single-game total of his career.
If we look back on Conner’s best career rushing performances, Nix often played a prominent role. Conner’s career high of 146 yards came against Cleveland in a 2018 game where Nix took a dozen offensive snaps. His third best total, 135 yards in the 2018 opener against the Browns, saw Nix on the field for another 19 snaps. Against Cincinnati that year, Conner got 111 yards while Nix took 17 snaps.
In fact, in the five games in 2018-2019 where Nix was on the field for at least 10 snaps, Conner rushed 112 times for 598 yards for an average of 5.3 yards per carry. When Nix got less than 10 snaps or didn’t play altogether, Conner went 219-839-3.8. That’s a difference of 1.5 yards per carry with more of Nix on the field, which, by NFL standards, is a huge disparity.
There are factors that explain away some of that +1.5. All of 2019, for starters. Also, opponents like Cleveland and Cincinnati in 2018 and Miami in 2019, where Conner had some of his best games, weren’t exactly the most staunch run defenses in the league.
But even if we throw out 2019, Conner is at 126-520-4.1 in 2018 with Nix taking less than ten snaps. That’s still a significant +1.2 yards per carry with a heavier dose of Nix. And Conner didn’t exactly light it up against weaker run defenses in 2018 with Nix in a reduced role. He produced just 107 yards on 30 carries (3.6) in games against Carolina, Jacksonville and Kansas City, all of whom finished in the bottom third in the league. Nix got just 14 total snaps in those contests. There’s no doubt that Roethlisberger’s absence and his own injuries hurt Conner’s performance last season. But not having a competent fullback in the lineup hampered him as well.
Let’s take a closer look at why Conner excels with a fullback on the field and speculate on how Derek Watt, the man signed to replace Nix, might impact Conner in 2020.
To better appreciate his strengths, let’s first examine where Conner struggles. His biggest weakness, in my opinion, is in identifying zone cuts out of single-back sets (for a better understanding of the zone run game, click here). Conner is not necessarily poor in this regard - he’s an accomplished NFL running back, after all, which would be impossible were he a poor zone runner. But this is not an area in which he excels. Given how much single-back zone the Steelers run, this can be problematic.
I lifted the following GIF from Geoffrey Benedict’s excellent piece on Derek Watt’s contributions on offense with the Chargers. It shows Conner in a 3rd and 1 situation against New England in last year’s season opener. He is the single back in an 11 personnel bunch set and he has one job here - gain the yard required to move the chains.
Every back from high school on up is taught in short yardage to be decisive, stay square and get low. The key is a good first cut that gets the back heading vertical. Conner could have done this by slamming the ball between right guard David DeCastro, who pancaked a Patriot linebacker, and right tackle Matt Feiler. Instead, he stayed wide, drifting into the C-gap, where tight end Vance McDonald was beaten soundly. The play was stuffed for no gain, costing the Steelers a first down:
Here’s another example, from the 2018 game at Cincinnati. The Steelers are in a 12 personnel set with both tight ends and receiver Juju Smith-Schuster in an unbalanced look to the left:
They run an inside zone play to the right. Cincy stuffs the A and B gaps, forcing Conner to wind his run to the backside, where, if he had planted and gotten upfield off of the butt of Smith-Schuster, who did a nice job picking up the safety fitting in the C-gap, he would have made a minimum of three or four yards:
Unfortunately, Conner didn’t see that cut. This is because, rather than having used a jump-cut on his first movement, which would have kept him square, he turned his shoulders and ran parallel to the line of scrimmage. This reduced his vision and made it harder to execute that second movement upfield behind Juju. Conner wound up trying to bounce the play to the edge, where, with his shoulders facing the sideline, he was taken down by the corner for a loss:
Good zone runners must be able to execute these jump cuts because holes are fluid in a zone scheme. Le’Veon Bell was great at this, remaining patient and staying square as long as possible before bursting through a developing seam:
The jump-cut Bell utilized on his first movement here kept everything upfield so he could see the second cut emerge. What we saw from Conner is quite different. This isn’t to say Bell’s style is better overall than Conner’s style. But in the single-back zone game, where a runner must identify the hole without the benefit of a lead blocker, it can definitely be more effective.
Conner is a different runner with a fullback in front of him. Watch him here, running behind Nix:
This is an easy one from the game last year against Miami (the only one Conner and Nix played together, where Conner went 23-145). The hole is big enough for many of the people reading this article to run through. The reason I showed it is because it’s a zone scheme, in this instance zone lead, or what old-school guys call “iso,” where the line zone-blocks away from an isolated backer, to whom the fullback is assigned. Look at how aggressive and assertive Conner is running behind Nix. It’s hard to miss the hole here but Conner is much more decisive with a fullback taking him to the point of attack than he was in those earlier clips where he had to find his own hole. He doesn’t have the great vision required of a pure zone back but he is an extremely tough runner who, once he finds the hole, can punish a defense with his physicality.
The next GIF shows the same scheme from a different formation minus the motion. The hole isn’t as big here but the fact Conner has a lead blocker reduces the amount of field he has to consider while attacking the line of scrimmage. On a single-back zone play, the runner must see from the backside B-gap to the frontside B-gap for the hole to emerge. That’s four gaps. On the lead play, the backside cut isn’t much of a consideration. The back adheres to a “bang it or bounce it” rule where he will keep the play on the front-side, either by following the back into the hole or taking it wider if the play-side backer fills aggressively:
The backer steps up to meet Nix here so Conner cuts left and squeezes through the C-gap where the edge player has gotten too far upfield. With a lead back taking him downhill and only two running lanes to consider, Conner is more assertive.
Here’s one more. This time the Steelers attack the edge on an outside zone lead. Nix is off-set to the weak side of the formation and the Steelers flip tight end Nick Vannett over to gain an extra hat at the point of attack. It’s a full-flow play, meaning everyone is heading in the same direction and therefore moving quickly. But Conner’s job is simplified because, with Vannett helping seal the edge, Conner just needs to read Nix’s block and cut off of it:
Nix kicks out the corner, Conner inserts inside of him and the Steelers have another nice gain.
These are all zone runs. On each, we see Conner running more decisively with a lead back showing him the way. Using a fullback isn’t the only way to get a lead blocker out in front of a back, of course. The Steelers do it routinely by pulling linemen when they run their gap plays like power, counter, sweep, dart and trap. Teams love zone runs, however, because the blocking scheme can be applied to any defensive front, the variations off of it are almost limitless and zone blocking marries well with 11 and 12 personnel, which so many NFL teams favor.
Two things seem likely about the Steelers’ run game in 2020. One is that Conner will remain the team’s feature back. The other is the Steelers will remain a zone-heavy run team. If each of these are indeed true, it will be interesting to see how much 21 personnel the team uses with Derek Watt on the field. Watt’s position-versatility should allow the Steelers to use him as an H-back or second tight end in addition to the traditional fullback role. This way, the Steelers can align him in “non-traditional “ 21 personnel sets, such as on a wing or as a second tight end in an Ace formation, and either shift or motion him into position to become a lead blocker for Conner.
In 2018, with Roethlisberger healthy, the Steelers used 21 personnel (two backs) on just 4% of their total snaps while using 12 personnel (two-tight ends) 10% of the time. Their use of 12 personnel jumped to 23% last season while they used 21 personnel at about the same frequency. With Watt, the Steelers could essentially combine the two to give them a lead blocker from a two-tight end look. Watt isn’t the bruising blocker Nix was, but he’s enough of a receiving threat at tight end to keep defenses from loading up the box like they did when Nix was on the field. Thus, a hybrid FB/TE role for Watt could provide Conner both a lead blocker and more room to run the football.
With Conner entering his contract year, how the Steelers choose to use Watt could have a great impact on his future in Pittsburgh. If it’s business-as-usual, with Watt seeing the field as infrequently as Nix did, Conner may have to find a way to improve as a single-back zone runner to earn that second contract here. If Watt is employed in more of a hybrid role, there should be extra opportunities to use him as a lead blocker, which benefits Conner. And if the Steelers use a high draft pick on a running back, all bets are off. It’s going to be a big year for James Conner one way or another. How the Steelers use Derek Watt may go a long way in determining just how big.