Shockwaves were sent through the NFL world when it was revealed last week that Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell had never signed his franchise tender and was set to miss the teams season opener against the Cleveland Browns. This meant that James Conner, the 2017 3rd round selection out of the University of Pittsburgh, was set to start. Conner had an impressive preseason but many worried that he wouldn’t be ready for the new role that he was thrust into.
Conner exceeded expectations in his first career start. The running back had 135 yards and 2 touchdowns on 31 carries. He also caught 5 of his 6 targets for 57 yards during the Steelers season opening tie.
Bell often is lauded around the league for his exceptional vision and patience and it’s clear that a few things may have rubbed off on to his understudy the past few seasons. Conner’s ability to read defenses and make smart, decisive, decisions was his biggest asset on Sunday. He is also great at keeping his feet churning in order to make sure that he falls forward for maximum yardage.
This third quarter play near the goal line is the perfect display of his skill set.
Conner takes the handoff out of the backfield and the Browns defense does a great job recognizing the run and plugging up the hole he is attempting to go through. The running back does a great job following his lead blocker and patiently waiting for a gap to open. Once he has a chance, he lowers his shoulder and barrels his way through defenders for a good pick up. Cleveland should have stuffed this run for no gain, but the second-year player created a decent gain out of it.
His ability to keep his momentum churning forward and finish runs by falling forward for a few extra yards was key to the success of the offense. Those few extra yards help keep the offense ahead of the chains even when they do not deserve to be and punished the Browns defense even when they played well.
When the Browns did not play the run well Conner gashed them. He managed to take advantage of almost any space he was given and his vision and pathing in the open field led to this third quarter touchdown.
The running back gets a great block from his fullback and the pulling guard to protect the edge and open a hole inside. A defender puts himself in a great position to stuff the gap Conner is running into. He is spotted by the ball carrier and Conner quickly readjusts. Conner spots another hole opening up between his guard and tackle on that side and bursts through into open space and cleanly runs into the endzone for a touchdown.
Conner was great at spotting his blocks, spotting defenders and leveraging them both in a way to create an open path for himself. His quick thinking and high football IQ make him a nuisance for defenders as there positioning must be near-perfect to grab him in open space. This makes him a dangerous receiving target.
The running back catches the screen out of the backfield here. He has his tackle in front of him blocking and two defenders closing in on him. The tackle gets the first man, leaving Conner one on one against the defensive back. Instead of turning his run towards the alley upfield Conner heads towards the sideline. He makes his way all the way around his blocker, forcing the second defender to get caught behind the same block. The tackle is forced to switch off of his block and Conner breaks back towards the inside and gains a couple yards falling forward after he is finally tackled.
He was not perfect as a runner, though. He still doesn’t have the long speed to burn teams once he is in the open field. Conner got caught in the backfield by a defender he had no idea was near him and was stripped for a costly fumble as well. It was a great start, though, and something the Steelers can build upon.
Conner looks like a great replacement for Bell’s abilities as both a runner and a receiver, but Bell is an elite pass blocker as well. If Conner wants to fully replace the impact of his predecessor, then he must get better in that aspect.
The running back was responsible for a sack and one play that should have been a sack on Sunday. While he is great at spotting oncoming rushers he doesn’t get his body into great blocking position quick enough to get underneath them and stop their pursuit. Pass rushers can easily bounce off of him and get by him to continue their run at the quarterback.
It is still unsure how long the Bell holdout will last. For now, it looks like Conner is the guy for the Steelers going forward, and this performance should instill confidence in him from fans and coaches. He isn’t the elite running back Bell is – and he probably never will be – but for now it looks like the Steelers running game is still in great hands.
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