James Conner’s Struggles In Pass Protection Keeping Him Off The Field

It’s already going to be tough for a running back to get on the field when Le’Veon Bell is the starter. It’s going to be even tougher when you struggle in pass protection. That’s the situation James Conner finds himself in right now and Todd Haley talked about during yesterday’s interview with the media.

“James has shown some good things as a runner,” Haley said via Steelers.com. “Protection wise, he’s had a couple little slip ups. Things we can’t have happen. The quarterback is the number one thing and these guys have to be 100% sharp from a protection standpoint. But he’s working everyday, working hard, and getting better.”

That biggest slip up came against Jacksonville, where Conner failed to pick up a blitzing linebacker, creating pressure that helped lead to a Ben Roethlisberger interception. Conner didn’t log any more snaps that game until the final moments of an already decided contest.

For the year, Conner has played just 35 snaps. He’s done well running the ball, as Haley pointed out, with 17 carries and averaging a healthy 5.2 yards per pop. But he hasn’t shown the well-rounded ability of Bell, which, to be fair, is understandable and expected, or the niche ability that even Terrell Watson has carved out as a short-yardage back.

Although Bell’s workload has been heavy, it’ll be tough to justify Conner’s involvement until he rounds off the edges and proves himself as a reliable option in every phase of the job. Even if some would like to see a rotation and reduce Bell’s snap count, which Haley commented on during the interview.

“We as a staff, with Coach T, talk about it all the time. We talk to [Bell]. Monitor how he’s doing. He’s a young guy who doesn’t have a lot of wear and tear. That’ll ultimately fall in Coach’s hands, when he wants to take anything from him. As for Le’Veon, he never wants to come off. You like that, love that about a guy who gets stronger as the game goes on.”

Haley said it’s an organizational effort to determine Bell’s workload from himself, Tomlin, and even Kevin Colbert when he watches over practice.

About the Author

Alex Kozora

Full-time blogger from mom’s basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.

  • Av232

    It seems like the other rookie running backs we’ve faced have had some trouble in pass protection as well.

    I’m thinking about Kareem Hunt and Joe Mixon getting trucked. Who knows about Fournette… They never had to throw it.

  • Jason Dock Dudley

    Makes sense. Fans say use him and on’t understand why he is not getting many snaps and get upset with Bells usage. Coaches are not idiots and usually if a guy is not playing it is for a reason. If you can’t protect the QB…you are not going to play much.

  • Jeff McNeill

    I agree. Many fans however believe they could do the job better than our coaches ans GM.

  • MP34

    This kind of goes to the point that there’s a difference between seeing and doing. He was great in training camp at pass-pro drills, because you know it’s coming. He’s apparently having difficulty knowing who his guy and his responsibility is. He’s a bright kid, he’ll figure it out.

  • Intense Camel

    Explain why D-will and Blount never got reps as the backup then.

  • Intense Camel

    Vince absolutely destroyed those guys.

  • falconsaftey43

    Well, to be fair DWill didn’t play many games with Bell. One or the other were usually hurt. They played a total of 4 games together last year in the regular season. Bell had 75 carries, DWill 9. In 2015 it was 6 games with 113 and 22 carries respectively. 2014 with Blount it was 11 games with 195 and 65 carries. This year Bell has 169 to Conner’s 17. So DWill got 11% and 16% of carries in his two seasons. Blount got 25%. Connor so far has 9%.

    But we all know Tomlin doesn’t spell his RBs. Just doesn’t do it. Steeler’s RBs under Tomlin usually at the top of league in carries.

  • Intense Camel

    Exactly, to pretend like pass pro is the reason Conner doesn’t play is foolish. They simply don’t believe in spelling their RBs.

  • falconsaftey43

    I’m sure it’s a part of it. Why he’s only at 9% and not in the 15-25% range. But yeah, Bell is a great back and Tomlin doesn’t spell his starting back much.

  • Intense Camel

    You would think he’s learned his lesson by now. We’re the only team in the nfl that does this. Best RB or not.

  • Jason Dock Dudley

    amazing how stats can clear up misconceptions. I would say D will was a bit lower than optimal, but then d-will has always been a fragile guy so he was old and fragile. Not the guy you ideally want getting 20-25% of the carries. IMO though 20% is a good benchmark. Thats 1 for every 5 carries. That may seem low but long scoring drives most likely amounts to 8 carries or so. No way is Tomlin going to pull a hot Bell on a marching scoring drive just to meter his reps. He will not get pulled on short drives either. In the end the backup is going to get more like 10-15% and would be extremely fortunate to get 20% of the carries. I also do not understand this new fascination with teams using 2-3 RBs (saints) on a regular basis. Great RBs do not share carries. It just doesn’t happen.

  • falconsaftey43

    He did rotate heavy in 2011 with Mendenhall and Redman.
    I don’t know that it’s an actual problem. Last year was the only “wear and tear” affect on Bell. I think it’d be good to rotate some more, but I’m not overly worried about it.

  • Jason Dock Dudley

    Not true. Steelers,Dallas,San diego,Jacksonville,Chiefs,Minnesota,Cardinals..teams with workload type pro bowl type ball carriers do not pull their backs very often. They may if they do not have a quality 3rd down back. Bell is an excellent receiving back so he stays on the field often gets carries or catches out of an audible that would have gone to the 3rd down back. Again,great and hof potential backs do not get pulled. LT,Faulk,Martin,James,Johnson,Elliott,Thomas,Bell, etc….

  • falconsaftey43

    well they do it to the extreme
    right now Bell has 81.3% of all team carries.
    last year highest was Gurley with 74.1% (Bell didn’t play all games so he was lower)
    2015 it was Latavius Murray with 71.9%
    2014 was high with DeMarco Murray getting 82.7%
    2013 Forte 71.5%
    2012 Doug Martin 76.7%
    2011 MJD 70.1%
    2010 CJ2K 77.8%
    2009 Steve Jackson 78.8%

    So a bit higher than the most used RB typically is. This only accounts for carries.

  • Intense Camel

    All of those teams rotate RBs. Bell is the only RB in the league consistently getting 30+ carries. It’s not about pulling him, it’s about other guys getting reps. If there was no viable option behind him then I’d understand, but conner has shown he can produce given the opportunity. Yea we need Bell of course, but it isn’t wise to depend on him as much as we have. What happens if he goes down? Now we have to start a rookie or an udfa that have barely even played.

  • Intense Camel

    It is on two fronts.

    1. Wear and tear on Bell
    2. Having backups that are prepared to play.

    It’s not a huge problem, but can easily be rectified imo. At least give the guys some garbage carries near the end of the game. No reason Bell should still be in the game when we’re up 2 possesions with less than 3 mins left.

  • falconsaftey43

    I agreed, especially with him being a rookie, I’d like to get Conner more experience.

    Your end of game situation happens less than you think. This year Bell has 3 carries in that scenario, Conner 1, Watson 1. Bell only has 17 career carries in that scenario.

  • falconsaftey43

    playing around with profootballreference win probability calculator, I think 3 minutes is the right time to start subbing with a 2 score lead.

    Interestingly, 9 point lead in the 4th quarter with 15 to 6 minutes left sees a steady increase in win probability from 90.9% to 98.2%. But at the 5 minute mark it drops to 85.7% before rising to 95.2% at 4 minutes and 98.6% at 3 minutes. Seems to indicate that if a team is able to get the ball with 5 minutes and a two score deficit, there is a decent chance at them making a comeback.

  • Jason Dock Dudley

    That I do agree with

  • ATL96STEELER

    Obviously when you’ve only had 35 snaps, your bad ones are going to stand out…okay, he’s not complete yet and certainly that should hold him back, but I still think he can be used as a runner more than he is now…sure Bell never wants to come out, but too many times I think Bell is getting the call on a 3rd play in a row, or right after a big run…for negative or minimal gain because he’s tired.

    Those are opportunities to slide Connor in there and pound him if a running play was the call.

  • Conserv_58

    Thanks for the breakdown, Alex. It clears up the question of why he hasn’t seen more reps. Knowing Connor’s make up it won’t be long before this is not an issue anymore.

  • John A Stewart

    So I guess they going to run the wheels of Bell like Gruden did Cadillac Williams wow.

  • cencalsteeler

    I’m going to disagree with you here and say it is a huge problem. An inexperienced Fitz toting the rock for us (and a lost fumble which may be due to lack of touches and not being comfortable) was thrust on to the big stage and we had to depend on him. Then, the year before we had to rely on a guy who never played for us before and we had to rely on him. Both didn’t work out and we looked like a totally different team out there and were booted from the playoffs. Whether or not Bell is the best back in the league or not, you have to prepare your team better than relying so heavily on him because he’s just 1 play away from not being available anymore.

  • ryan72384

    Exactly how many times have we seen Bell run on first and second and then break off a nice run on third down for a first. Then they will give it to him again on first down for a fourth play in a row and he gets stuffed for a 4 yard loss and its a drive killer. Sometimes he almost looks like he’s just waiting to get tackled to get a breather. Why not throw Conner in to run on first down after Bell just ran 3 plays in a row? I know Bell is in great shape but he’s not a machine.

  • walter

    i cant believe we drafted a RB that cant pass protect.

  • Alex Kozora

    It’s not fair to say that he can’t. He’s a rookie. Common problem.

  • Intense Camel

    Can’t disagree with that

  • thomas hmmmm

    5.2 yards a carry more than justifies more carries and more time on the field.

  • thomas hmmmm

    15% is only decent if that is the return on your dollar. It is not a decent chance for a comeback. Which those numbers dont make sense because how can a team come back at 5 minutes remaining but not comeback with 15 minutes remaining? That doesnt seem statistically possible because one set is in the other.

  • Brenton deed

    Yes but of course the defense has got to know it’s likely to be a run if he’s weak in pass protection. You set him up to fail.

  • Brenton deed

    If they’re only going to have him for maybe next year flog him now and get the 7th and 8th rings.

  • J.

    From what i have read over the years pass protection is the hardest part for young running backs to adjust to.

  • gdeuce

    it’s only on 17 carries

  • walter

    I dont remember Bell, Redman, or even Dwyer having a blocking problem as a rookie. Baron Batch was a camp phenom rookie blocker. But If you say its common (with Steelers rookies), I will have to accept it because I dont follow the team like you do. The only bad blocker that sticks in my mind is Dri Archer. Conner is not playing because he cant block but all we can do is hope for improvement and I agree no reason for concern at this point. Keep up the good work.

  • Conserv_58

    Have you watched those carries? James does a good job of setting up his blocks and then hitting the hole. The one thing I don’t like about his running style is he runs too upright in the same manner that Mendenhall did. If he doesn’t learn to lower his pads before contact he’s not going to last very long. He has to learn to get small in a crowd or he’ll be eating through a straw.

  • Work Toward

    I think it’s the play calling…

  • Jim McCarley

    Well, the team needs to put more time in teaching these young guys how to block because if they come in to the game, it’s likely that they are getting the ball, so that’s not good, and if Bell gets hurt, what then? I would use a two back set, with Conner and Bell or Conner and Nix and split them out , one on each side of Ben and whichever side the pass rush comes from, let that back stay in and let the other back sneak out in to the flat or within five yards of the LOS…Not playing Conner because he can’t block makes no sense because would they not play Bell if he could not block? Play Nix more in the run game, give him the ball some on first downs and especially on third and one ….they aren’t using these guys as much as they should….imo. “he can’t block” is not a good reason to keep Conner on the sideline…teach him how to block…

  • ATL96STEELER

    Good point, Spaeth 2.0…, but they’re already failing in those situations when they overload Bell. Haley needs to recognize that and go to a different play…if the intent was to run it…at least run it with fresh legs.

    Maybe there have been more, but he’s only made one notable mistake in pass pro…so they don’t have to go 100% run with him in there….if he continues to make the same mistakes in his limited opps…then it’s a bigger issue.

    Love Bell, but, 30-35+ touches are going to wear him down in DEC/JAN.

  • mem359

    My guess:
    At 5 minutes, that team is going to go for it, no matter what.
    With 6-15 minutes, they will probably punt it, even with small risks like 4th and 1, figuring they will still have chances later in the quarter. (And then the other team burns the clock to almost nothing, or extends the lead to 3 possessions.)

  • mem359

    Redman and Dwyer only played 1 game apiece as rookies.

  • Jim Foles

    8 Int’s in 7 games. Can’t rollout, Runs Slow.. Trouble with his long ball.. Blowing dozens of third and shorts. 14 year veteran. Football is funny.. Give Conner a chance to play and get better.. geeez.

  • dany

    Bell was special in that case from practically the beggining

  • dany

    man when you put it that way….

  • thomas hmmmm

    Exactly the point… He needs more to see if it is legit and also to get acclimated to the game speed for his pass blocking because we have no clue if Bell will get injured o if Bell will even be here next season.
    That is why.

  • gdeuce

    you can’t throw him in if his pass blocking is not up to the standard in practice

  • walter

    Ok you have a point but what i am saying is I dont remember these guys struggling to block when they were thrown in the fire

  • walter

    Actually you dont have a point. OK 1 game and 4 pre season games how did they block? I dont remember them struggling but im only going by memory. If you cant block, you dont play RB for the Steelers so i thought it was important enough to draft someone with those talents.

  • mem359

    My point is that you should wait until he has a year of experience under his belt before deciding that he won’t be able to pass protect.

    You are judging on 4 pre-season games? Think about how many players looked like all-pros when competing against non-starters, and then like trash once the regular season starts.

  • walter

    Ok i understand. But i wasnt the one to judge him. His coaches did when they pulled him out of the game, he blocked so bad.