With Le’Veon Bell missing another preseason in an endless back and forth with the front office of the Pittsburgh Steelers the backups on the team’s roster are getting a chance to shine. In the opening two weeks of the NFL preseason running back James Conner has been taking the first team snaps.
Conner was selected by the Steelers in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft. A product of the Pittsburgh Panthers, the hometown kid was used sparingly in his rookie season. He carried the ball 32 times for 144 yards. He never saw the endzone and never started in the 14 games he played last season.
He has looked better than ever so far in preseason and has shown that he can be a valuable member of the team’s offense. In two games he has carried the ball 9 times for 72 yards. He scored a touchdown in the Steelers week 2 matchup against the Green Bay Packers. Conner has caught 1 pass for 9 yards.
One of Conner’s best traits is how hard he is to bring down once he gets moving. At 6-1, 233 pounds he quickly builds momentum and is a downhill runner. It takes multiple men to bring him down and simple arm tackles can’t do anything to him.
He has great balance and does a great job keeping his footing through any sort of contact. Tacklers bounce off of him and he keeps on running as if it doesn’t affect him. Seeing him rumble his way downfield is a scary sight for oncoming defenders.
Conner is not just a brute force coming out of the backfield either. He is a smart runner and has the vision necessary to find running lanes when they open. He does a great job pathing his runs and spots defenders arriving to close gaps then proceeds to adjust his running lane accordingly.
While his vision isn’t up to par with Bell’s, his mental skills and football IQ as a running back are great and give the Steelers a good foundation to build upon.
He is not the perfect runner, though. He does not burst through holes well when he see’s them and his long speed isn’t the greatest either. It takes a pack to bring him down but it’s easy for the pack to track him down due to his lack of speed. Durability could be a concern for him long term as well. He does a great job finishing runs by barreling through people, but over time that increases the potential wear and tear put on his body.
Conner also has work to do in pass protection. The Steelers rarely used him there last season as Bell is an elite pass blocker. They haven’t asked him to do much is pass protection this preseason either, but he has failed when called upon.
With Bell’s time in Pittsburgh winding to a close the Steelers will have to start thinking about finding his replacement. Conner does not have to much tread on the tires yet and has the potential to be a bell cow running back for the Steelers one day. This season may be another one where he spends much of the year as a spectator, though, as the Steelers have already shown that they are willing to run Bell as much as possible.
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