James Conner was injured in the second quarter Monday night. Before his injury he was unproductive, with 9 rushing yards an 6 carries, and 8 receiving yards on 4 targets. Those numbers look much worse when you consider Benny Snell’s success after Conner left the game, when Snell gained 113 rushing yards on 19 carries. But while those numbers paint a stark difference between the two runners that has fans clamoring for Snell to be the team’s main back, the film tells a different story.
James Conner and the early struggles of the Steelers offense
1st quarter, 10:34. Watch Stefen Wisniewski and Zach Banner on the right side of the line.
This is the Steelers first play on offense, almost 5 minutes into the game with the Steelers trailing by 3. The Steelers make the same mistake the Giants would make with Bud Dupree, leaving Leonard Williams unblocked, and while Williams isn’t the athlete Dupree is, he still gets to the ball, holding Conner to a 2 yard run. Blake Martinez is also there, after popping Vance McDonald to blow off his block.
1st quarter, 10:01. Watch Stefen Wisniewski (#61) and Zach Banner (#72), the right side of the line.
The next play. It looks like Conner has a good run coming initially, but the Stefen Wisniewsi/Zach Banner double team on Leonard Williams doesn’t end as well as it starts, Not only do they fail to get Williams under control so Banner can peel off to get a linebacker, Williams ends up splitting their blocks like he’s Cameron Heyward, taking up a whole lot of space. Vance McDonald, for his part, lets his blocker pinch in from outside, closing the run lane entirely. Conner has nowhere to go on this run.
1st quarter, 7:00, Watch Maurkice Pouncey (#53) and the linemen to his right.
This play has Matt Canada’s fingerprints on it, with the jet sweep and Chukwuma Okorafor going to the right, while the line blocks to the left for Conner. There are two problems with this play, the first is the Pouncey/Wiskiewski double team that again fails to get a blocker to the linebackers, leaving Blake Martinez (#54) free to make the tackle at the end. But Zach Banner is slow to establish his position on his defender, and it changes Conner’s cutback lane, as Conner can’t slip inside Banner when Banner doesn’t have control of his block. When Conner tries to cut outside Banner, Austin Johnson (#98) is able to get to that side, forcing Conner back into the middle where Martinez is waiting for him.
1st quarter, 5:31. Watch Matt Feiler (#71).
The Steelers run away from their struggling right side, only to have Matt Feiler lose badly to Lorenzo Carter (#59) and again, Conner has nowhere to run.
1st quarter, 6:22. Watch James Conner (#30).
The run game is struggling, Ben Roethlisberger is rusty, so the Steelers try to get a little screen pass to Conner to get them both going. It doesn’t work. Wisniewski and Conner collide and Conner can’t get to Roethlisberger’s pass.
The first quarter was a nightmare on the Steelers offense, the line wasn’t in sync, Ben Roethlisberger was struggling, and Conner had as much room to show his talent as Saquon Barkley did most of the night. This covered 4 of Conner’s 6 carries and 1 of his 4 targets. The others weren’t better.
The offense comes together and Benny Snell takes over
As the second quarter started James Conner ran the ball one time for 1 yard, a play where multiple defenders were in the backfield, and then was done for the day.
That drive ended with a punt, and that punt was immediately followed by T.J. Watt’s interception. The offense that walked back onto the field clicked. Was it the realization that the defense had handed them great field position and they needed to make the most of it? Or was it just the swing of momentum away from the Giants defense and to the Steelers? Probably a combination of both, but it was a very different team that walked out for the second drive of the second quarter.
2nd quarter, 12:35.
Here we see the jet sweep look again, but this time Benny Snell follows it outside and is 5 yards up field before he meets a defender. Banner and Wisniewski win their blocks, McDonald and Ebron double the edge, McDonald peels off to block a linebacker while Feiler finishes the block on the edge, and JuJu Smith-Schuster turns the jet sweep fake into another block. Snell gains 8 yards because of the execution from his blockers.
2nd quarter, 2:48.
Same exact play, 8 minutes later. This time Snell cuts up field early since they are backed up deep in their own side of the field. Again the blocking is good, and Snell gains 4 yards before contact.
3rd quarter, 14:18. watch the offensive line to screen left.
Banner and Wisniewski double team the tackle and Banner peels off to get a linebacker, McDonald blocks safety Jabrill Peppers while Feiler nails his block on the edge. Benny Snell is 10 yards up field before he meets real resistance.
3rd quarter, 12:59. Watch fullback Derek Watt (#44) and the offensive line to the right of the screen.
I don’t know why Benny Snell cut back inside here, the Steelers were winning to the outside, and Snell cuts back inside to meet an unblocked defender. If he follows Watt he is in a much better situation to gain yards, and probably picks up the first down here. Instead the Steelers punted and the Giants went on their 19 play drive that ended in Cameron Heyward’s interception.
So while Benny Snell was far more productive than James Conner, it was much more about the blocking than it was the running back.
I started watching the running backs on film expecting to do a follow up on my film room from this summer about the different running styles of Conner and Snell, figuring the defense was shutting down power schemes, or maybe Conner was making wrong choices on his runs. But that wasn’t what the film showed. The Steelers offensive line was out of sync and playing poorly early on against the Giants. After the T.J. Watt interception gave the team better field position and the pressure to convert when the defense set them up for success, the offensive line played better, and the results improved.
The bad news is Zach Banner and Stefen Wisniewski both were injured late in the game, so the offensive line will have to get used to two different players starting in Week 2. Hopefully they don’t start out as rough as they did in Week 1.