Dunlap: Rest Of Season A Proving Ground For James Conner

Colin Dunlap
November 12, 2019 - 2:59 pm
James Conner

Justin Berl/Getty Images

PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) - Steelers running back James Conner has designs on playing against the Cleveland Browns on Thursday Night Football. 

At least that is what it sounded like on his radio show on Monday on 93.7 The Fan as I think “cautiously optimistic” would certainly be the best way to describe how Conner looks at the possibility of suiting up against Cleveland in key AFC North road action. 

The Steelers need him. 

The offense needs him. 

The run game needs him. 

Mason Rudolph needs him. 

The receivers --- to help their burden and perhaps free them up some more --- need him. 

The offensive line --- because of the way Conner has improved in pass protections --- needs him. 

But that’s just the half of it. The micro way of looking at it just tells a portion of the story. Certainly, you can quickly glance at the stats and see the Pittsburgh Steelers are less potent on the ground without Conner, as they averaged just 1.6 yards per rush this past weekend against the Rams. That’s an almost-unfathomable number to run for and get a win, but they somehow managed to do it. 

On top of that, it would seem the games Conner misses have less fluidity and flow in the run game and the offensive staff simply doesn’t have the trust in the other backs that they do in Conner. Perhaps that will come, but it isn’t there now. 

But while this current Steelers team appears undoubtedly better when Conner is full-on healthy and ready to go, this all commands a deeper question and study. To wit, are these final seven games of the regular season (and possibly the postseason) a trial of sorts for Conner to prove that he is, far and above, the No. 1 back headed into next season? 

If not, should they be? 

Frankly, should he be auditioning for his long-term job? 

He has played seven games this season and has averaged just 54.3 yards per game. He is also hitting at just 3.9 yards per carry. Perhaps most noticeable was that late-game fumble he had against the 49ers which turned out to be the fourth of his career and all coming in fairly deep moments of consequence. 

There have been flashes of brilliance to be sure. No question about it. 

Last season’s two games against the Browns (outside of the one fumble) were times when Conner flat-out steamrolled people. He was a total force against the Falcons last season and also showed up huge on the road in key AFC North clashes in both Cincinnati and Baltimore. 

But the flip side of that is he couldn’t finish the season due to injury. 

Just like he couldn’t get through half of this season without missing time with injury. 

For every step forward in his NFL career, there seems to be one step back for Conner. He can never really gain full traction, run with it and maintain it. 

This stretch of seven games to finish the regular season will be vital for not just the Steelers, but for Conner individually. 

I don’t think it’s unfair to say he needs to firmly grasp the team’s No. 1 halfback job and show that he can regularly put up number or perhaps the organization could go into next season with a different in-house or outside candidate to supplant him. 

This is an important time for the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

This might be an even more important time for the long-term career prospects of James Conner.  ​

 

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