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Tim Benz: Steelers don’t trust James Conner as much as they say

October 6, 2018
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Steelers running back James Conner with a run against the Ravens in the second quarter Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018 at Heinz Field.

The more the Steelers talk about James Conner, the more they promote his attributes as a running back.

If the coaches and players honestly believe what they are saying, it’s time they start buying into their own sales job.

Because the numbers on-field don’t support the backing given to Conner between games.

Without Le’Veon Bell as the go-to running back, the Steelers either can’t run or are afraid to try.

Maybe both.

Whatever the case, the Steelers rank 27th in yards per rushing attempt in the NFL and 28th in total rushing attempts.

The hype surrounding Conner started in training camp when it became apparent Bell would be sitting out activities in Latrobe for a second straight year. Every offensive player or coach at Saint Vincent College drooled while gushing about Conner’s improved blocking, hands, speed, decisiveness, health and conditioning.

The praise ramped up as it became apparent Bell wouldn’t be reporting in time for the season opener in Cleveland. Conner rewarded that praise by totaling 192 yards from scrimmage in that contest.

He was excellent.

Until that fumble in the fourth quarter that turned the game around.

Maybe that was it. Maybe that’s the reason. Whatever the case, since that moment, the Steelers haven’t treated their running game with Conner the same as they used to with Bell.

They’ll protest to the contrary, though.

“James Conner has been really solid,” Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. “Both with the ball in his hands and without.”

If that’s true, then he should get the ball more.

If it’s not true, then let’s give up the charade and stop acting like Conner is a proper replica of Bell. Because, since that fumble, he hasn’t been. And the Steelers are calling plays as if they know that internally.

Take a look at the two home losses against the Chiefs and Ravens.

Conner had just eight carries in the Kansas City game. Five of them came on the first drive of the second half. His last on that series was a 1-yard touchdown plunge to tie the game at 28-28. The only touch he had the rest of the way was a reception. He was given no carries even though the aerial attack yielded three straight punts.

After halftime against Baltimore, the Steelers got the ball first with the game tied 14-14. Conner picked up 7 yards on the first two snaps. Not great. But that set up a makeable third-and-3.

Ben Roethlisberger misfired on a pass, thus forcing a punt. No great sin there, since the Steelers defense forced a punt, as well. But on the next possession, the Steelers had six snaps. They threw five times, with the sole hand-off going to Ryan Switzer.

Again, it was only the third quarter at this point, and the game was still tied.

The Ravens answered that dry possession with a field goal. Conner got one carry the rest of the night. It lost 2 yards.

Meanwhile, when Conner has gotten the ball, he hasn’t made much of it. Ben Roethlisberger handed it to him nine times after the fumble in Cleveland. The second-year back netted a meager 16 yards.

Conner got 15 carries and 61 yards in Tampa. Not bad. That’s a 4.1-yard average. But 27 came on one carry. The other 14 produced 34 yards, good for just 2.4 per tote.

So are Conner’s lack of carries a product of not running well? Or does the team need to run more often to do it better? That’s quite a chicken-or-egg conundrum.

“As long as (the run game) is efficient, we get yards here and there,” guard Ramon Foster said. “If you get behind the chains a little bit, then you have to throw it. So that’s not an issue to get frantic about. We’re a team that always finds a way.”

Well, they better find it. Pass-run balance is just one of many issues facing this club right now.

Then there is the short pass game as a way to supplement the run. Remember all those complaints about Bell and Big Ben misfiring early in 2017?

Bell had 17 catches on 23 targets through four games. Conner has 18 on 25 attempts in his direction through four this year. So virtually no difference statistically. We complained about Bell’s slow start last year, yet we are being told to praise Conner this year.

Sorry. I’m not carrying that water.

Everyone is mad at Bell. I get that. Everyone is inclined to love Conner because of his local ties, his cancer recovery and his work ethic. I understand that, too.

But I also get the numbers. And they tell a different story. It’s one we may not want to acknowledge. But it’s one that needs to be resolved.

Both emotionally and tactically.

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