Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens: #Steelers RB James Conner’s Demise Was Greatly Exaggerated

Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens showcases James Conner’s performance during the opening month of the NFL season and reveals the skills of the running back’s game that is often overlooked. 

Forty-five minutes into the first Monday Night game of the 2020 season and we had our first public overreaction of the year. James Conner struggles to earn yardage against the New York Giants early in the game before he exits with an ankle injury. Benny Snell enters the game and outproduces Conner, earning over 100 yards on the evening, and generating proclamations that he outperformed Conner, Conner looked sluggish in comparison, and this was Snell’s job for the taking.

This was categorically false despite the fact that Snell outproduced Conner in the game and looked good doing it. Snell found open creases, displayed the decisiveness and burst of a second-year player who acclimated to the NFL in ways that he was understandably a half-beat slower during his rookie year.

Here’s the problem: There’s a difference between outproducing and outperforming. Snell earned more yards. It was far from an established fact that Snell looked better than Conner.

In order for this to be a true statement, the Steelers offensive line would have had to open creases early in the game for Conner that it did for Snell. In most cases, running the football is a team effort and for much of the first quarter against the Giants, Conner had little to work with and got hurt.

Some will provide the conspiratorial narrative that Conner wasn’t hurt, but benched. While possible, it’s improbable. Conner had a slight limp for at least two touches before leaving the game.

It’s more likely that Conner tweaked the ankle, the Steelers decided to preserve Conner for the season ahead and roll with Snell against a bad Giants football team, which understandably upset the competitive Conner. However, people see what they want to see when they don’t examine the detail of what happened on the field or know how to closely examine it.

Don’t get me wrong, Snell might actually get to prove that he’s a superior running back to Conner, but this setting was not that moment despite the public’s desire to shoehorn that narrative into events that unfolded. It’s why many were surprised when Conner reeled off a pair of 100-yard efforts during the past two weeks while Snell earned only a handful of touches in each contest.

Conner has been the sixth-most productive running back in the NFL during Weeks 2-3. Although this is approximately the value of production that I projected for him before the season and I thought the post-Giants clamoring for Snell was reactionary, I don’t believe Conner is an elite talent at the position.

He’s a good running back with three-down versatility who displays notable talents worth illustrating:

  • Short-area burst that complements his patience as a zone runner.
  • An excellent eye for gauging his distance behind pulling blockers and downhill pursuit on gap runs that allows him to make subtle changes of direction without significant alteration of his pacing.
  • Mobility to drop his weight and come to a stop in challenging situations.
  • Mobility to open his hips and work around defenders efficiently.
  • Prowess to defeat linebackers with his route running.

When you pair a versatile running back of his talent with one of the best run-blocking offensive lines in football, it elevates the production potential of the runner.

Conner is a great reminder that production and performance are two different things in the context of evaluating the value of the player.

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