Dwain McFarland’s RSP Unskew Your View: RB James Conner (Pittsburgh)

Rookie Scouting Portfolio contributor Dwain McFarland debuts his feature, Unskew Your View, with an examination of the 2019 preseason narratives about Steelers running back, James Conner.

We are at the time of year where many narratives are taking form as we are on the downhill slope towards NFL football returning to our lives.  In this series, I will be investigating some of these narratives throughout the summer to determine if they are true, false, or somewhere in between.

First up is running back James Conner from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Narrative:  James Conner’s performance faded down the stretch and Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell Jr. will be more involved

Many are referencing James Conner’s season splits:

At first, even when you remove three missed games in the second half it appears he faded.  His opportunities per game (rushes + targets) dropped from 25 to 17.

From an injury standpoint, there are a couple of things still missing from this view:

  • Conner missed the fourth quarter of week 10 with a concussion versus Carolina.
  • Conner was questionable for his week 17 matchup versus Cinncinati and possibly not full strength.

In reality, we likely only saw Conner at full strength for three games over the last eight.

In week 10, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels saw 13 carries between them as the Steelers salted away a blow out win – likely carries Conner would have seen.  That still isn’t enough to completely explain the drop in opportunities per game played.

Outside of injury, there is still more missing from this view:

  • Despite opportunities per game going down, Conner’s snap, rush, and routes per dropback percentages all held steady – he wasn’t conceding those to other players
  • The Steelers passed the ball on 82%, 78%, and 73% of plays during weeks 11 – 13

Fact: A major component to Conner’s drop in production wasn’t due to falling out of favor or seeing a huge drop in efficiency, it was due to game planning and game flow.  In week 11 versus the Jaguars, Conner only had nine carries but was included in the passing game with nine targets.  In weeks 11 and 12 the Steelers lost to the Broncos and Chargers.  Again passing was the primary form of attack.

Connor was as involved as ever from a percentages point in these games but there was less rushing opportunity.

Implications: I also think it is tough to project more work for Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell Jr. if any of that is based on the assumption that James Conner wasn’t effective or was phased out.  Of course, Conner has fueled this fire by saying, “I think it will be spread out pretty evenly,” when asked about the running back approach during the team’s recent minicamp.

While I do find that quote notable and worth monitoring, I don’t see it as something likely to play out.  Mike Tomlin has a long history of riding one back.

In addition to Tomlin’s preference for one back, there are other hurdles for Jaylen Samuels. When discussing Samuels with Steelers insider, Matt Williamson, he saw Samuels as more of a gadget player.  A guy they would love to get more out of, but not likely at the expense of Conner.  One of the primary reasons being concerns around Samuels’ pass blocking ability – something he almost never did in college.  If you are a reader of the RSP publication, you likely know that Matt Waldman also sees Samuels’ skill set as a runner as limited at this point in his career.

If things do change might it look more like the 2008 and 2009 distribution where a second back is more involved, but there is still a clear primary.

Unskewed View

In summary, I think the statement that Conner faded down the stretch is technically accurate.  However, when digging into why we can see it was due to injury and game flow.  Conner’s role could be slightly reduced to give Jaylen Samuels and possibly Benny Snell Jr. some work, but I don’t believe it is likely that we see a full-on committee given Tomlin’s staunch track record.

Editor’s Note: You can follow Dwain McFarland on Twitter @DwainMcFarland.  

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