Devil’s Advocate: James Conner’s Judicious Carries

You may recall for the past several offseasons that I ran an article series called The Optimist’s/Pessimist’s Take. I used it to explore different issues and topics the Pittsburgh Steelers were facing and took a positive or negative approach, examining each side in a separate article. This is essentially the same idea behind that, only condensed into one article for every topic.

In this version of the idea, I’ll be playing the Devil’s Advocate for both sides of the issue, looking at the best-case and worst-case scenarios in trying to find the range of likely outcomes of what is likely to happen for the Steelers relating to whatever topic the article is covering.

When it comes to the process of trying to construct a championship roster, the reality is that there are a ton of moving parts, and several ways to acquire said parts. There are a lot of things that can go right or wrong in not always predictable ways, so I think it’s helpful to try to look at issues by seeking out the boundaries of the likely positive or negative results.

Topic: How big of a role will James Conner play in the offense during his rookie season?

The Steelers headed into the 2017 NFL Draft pretty much knowing that they were going to come out of it with a running back. They were reportedly trying to trade into the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft in order to try to draft a running back, but they were not able to work out a deal.

That is perhaps why they felt the need to make sure that they drafted James Conner where they did, because they wanted to be absolutely sure that they would not pass over him before somebody else drafted him.

But the question that remains is whether or not there will be a significant opportunity to use him. The Steelers, after all, have an All-Pro running back in Le’Veon Bell, and historically when he has been healthy the other running backs get very few snaps.

Here’s why that could be different this year, though. For one, Bell is coming off yet another injury. He has ended three consecutive seasons with an injury that directly affected the team’s success, so they could be motivated to try to reduce his role in the hopes that he will be fresher for the playoffs.

They also drafted him in the third round for a reason. They think he is a talented player who can contribute. They think he can run physically as well as catch the ball and pass protect. Perhaps he can be given a series here or there or some situational work.

But it’s easy to go back to what Todd Haley said a while ago, which is basically that when Bell is on the field, it’s hard to get him off. Because he doesn’t want to come off and because you don’t want to take him off. There are too many things he can too when he is on the field.

Yet they know all too well what it looks like when he’s not on the field, as they’ve learned in three straight playoffs now. So their tune could be changing, especially now that they’re paying him an eight-figure salary. Protect the investment and all that.

Which side do you lean closer toward?

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • StillersInThe6

    I think you nailed it with: “Leveon has ended three consecutive seasons with an injury that directly affected the team’s success” – playoff losses/season-ending losses, essentially without a solid RB because of Bell’s injuries is a massive concern (that didn’t seem to get much attention, relative to other issues). Conner will hopefully both aid in the prevention of another Bell injury, and provide much better insurance/relief in that potential event.

  • falconsaftey43

    This to me is the critical question of the season. They haven’t historically done it. BUT, I think most agree that it needs to happen. Bell can’t be worn down come playoffs (to me, last year was the first time that happened, other were freak injuries). I don’t much worry about preventing the freak injuries, as they can happen on any play, and you’re really just slightly decreasing the odds, but the large volume of carries does take a toll. Conner needs to be getting about 20% of the offensive snaps IMO. suspensions have actually been a blessing in disguise the last few seasons, as it kept Bell’s carries early in the season down.

  • Hypo Cycloid

    I run bell almost exclusively. He creates too many mismatches on a play to play basis. To me, his is durable. Not an issue. But to help prevent injury, I would run Connor a LOT in the 4th quarter if we have a 2 score or more lead.

  • Justin B

    Great point.This to me would make total sense. If they keep Bell(which i understand why you would want to) on the field at all times and not try to save his body from injury for the postseason, than this was truly a wasted draft pick in round 3.

  • VaDave

    I’m not so sure about 20% of the carries, although I wouldn’t object to Bell giving up them up at all. IMO, if Green and Bryant are back and healthy, they would be absorbing a good chunk of that 20%. Being honest, I’m real interested in see Connors play at the NFL level, and agree from reports he should be a good addition.

  • falconsaftey43

    Bell lead the league in touches per game last year with 28.1. 4.5 more than the next closest (Zeke). That’s a lot of hits. Bell’s great, but man, that’s gotta wear him down by the end of the year.

  • falconsaftey43

    Not 20% carries, but 20% of the snaps. Heck, they can all be in pass protection for all I care, I just want Bell to get a rest now and then.

  • VaDave

    I think I’m ok with him taking plays off, just jogging off to the side with no contact. If you haven’t noticed, he does that a bit anyway, My assumption is that defenses will have to deal with Bells potential on a pre snap basis more than Connor, which in turn will open up better passing opportunities. Now, if Connors turns into the next Jim Brown… well, I’m ok with Bell parking it. No need to be picky, we both agree Bell needs to be fresher, and healthy in the playoffs.

  • Dorian James

    It’s as good a time to change as any. And I don’t know if they can’t even afford him after this year. Personally I think the shift to better character players will continue in the future. If Connor proves he’s capable I think they should give him more snaps then they were giving DeAngelo Williams.

  • falconsaftey43

    Yeah, that’s the key. I can’t wait to see how Conner looks in preseason.

  • VaDave

    Me too, although I may have some crow to eat over previous comments I made if he shines. Let me tell you, I LOVE to be wrong in cases like that……

  • blackandgoldBullion

    Also WRs some make a catch and go out of bounds or are tackled by one guy. Bell often gets hit many times on any given play, and routinely gang tackled. That’s tons more punishment than most others. I have always been a proponent of letting the backups get some snaps and there would be no guarantees he gets to the post season 100%. But I think it’s obvious he would have a better chance he gets there healthy.

  • Ace

    To me, the fact that the PS drafted a big back in the same body style as Bell tells me they have the option of using him a pretty good amount to spell Bell, with the potential to start games when Bell goes down. Always the possibility that he balls out and they keep the tag on Bell for another year and then let him walk for big $. I know it’s a scary thought, but there is potential there. Anyways, Conner vs Archer is what I am getting at. Archer never had a chance to be more than a 5 cpg back. Conner can do it all from what I see. I would like for this team to transition back a bit to a more ground and pound team. Give LB 20 cpg and JC 10. The offensive line is stacked and Ben is slipping.

  • Kevin Artis

    Make sure you run this by Tomlin. You know his mantra “Run to the wheels fall off”. Bell shouldn’t get a vote when he comes off the field. These coaches kill me when they say “he doesn’t want to come off” or “I can’t take him off because of what he does”. Well, when the playoff role around and you don’t have a star back go back to what you said/did before.

  • Matt Manzo

    With someone like Bell, your #2 has to be able to start and produce. We were lucky with DWill, but he was a veteran. It would be unfair to never give Conner any snaps and then expect him to start for Bell if/when Bell misses some games.
    I’d imagine they plan on using Conner a little bit, just to get him comfortable to the game.
    He can run, pass block and catch passes. There should be a role for him on this team.

  • Hypo Cycloid

    Lots of hits for sure. But what the position demands. And rb’s of yesteryear did that routinely. To me, not a big concern.

  • Andrew

    I feel like Conner can be a 4th quarter back in the mold of Bettis. You’re up by ten when the 4th starts, and you just run Conner down their throat. Sure, Bell gets a drive here and there, but he worked most of the game. Conner is fresh and powerful. Allows you to chew up the clock.