James Conner ‘not worried’ about slow start for Steelers running game
To James Conner and the offensive linemen assigned to block for him, the answer to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ problems in the running game isn’t complex.
They aren’t getting enough first downs to sustain momentum or long drives.
“It’s as simple as that,” center Maurkice Pouncey said Wednesday.
The numbers bear it out. While getting off to an 0-2 start, the Steelers have converted just 26 percent of their third-down opportunities (six of 23) to rank No. 26 in the NFL. That can be correlated to the team’s No. 29 ranking in rushing yards per game and next-to-last rating in rushing attempts.
Guard Ramon Foster grumbled to coach Mike Tomlin recently about the lack of rushing yards — 56.5 per game — and ways the Steelers can correct that deficiency.
“You’ve got to stay on the field,” Foster said. “And that’s exactly what it boils down to. We’ve got to make our third-and-manageable situations, as he would say. It comes down to us executing and being pros.”
In the pass-happy NFL, the Steelers were as guilty as anyone of ignoring the run last season. But even though they had the second-fewest rushing attempts in 2018, Conner came within 27 yards of a 1,000-yard season and was named to the Pro Bowl.
This year, Conner has 54 yards on 21 attempts — a 2.6 average.
“We just have to convert on third down,” Conner said. “There’s been a lot of three-and-outs. It’s tough to get the running game going when we can’t convert on third down. We’re not worried.”
The trend began in the opener against New England when the Steelers’ second, third and fourth drives each went three-and-out. The Steelers failed to convert three times on third-and-1 and once on fourth-and-1 in the 33-3 loss.
The first two drives Sunday in the 28-26 loss to the Seattle Seahawks also ended with punts after the offense couldn’t get a first down. The fifth was another three-and-out. That equates to six drives without a first down among the 21 that has lasted longer than one play.
Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if the Steelers didn’t need to rely on third down to move the chains.
“First and second down, we’re not getting positive yards, and third down, we couldn’t run the ball,” backup running back Jaylen Samuels said. “We have to do better on first and second down and get the running game going.”
The Steelers are averaging 16 first downs this season, down from 23.6 in 2018. Only two teams have a worse time-of-possession figure than the Steelers.
“It’s frustrating because you can’t catch a groove,” Foster said. “You go to the sideline and are like, ‘Damn, are we even playing a football game?’ Why? Because you can’t catch a rhythm. We have to be pros and make our plays.”
That’s even more imperative with second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph scheduled to make his first NFL start on Sunday at 2-0 San Francisco.
“We know we can run the ball,” Foster said. “It’s a matter of doing it. We have to support him. We have to stay on the field.”
Which is what Conner was unable to do against the Seahawks. He left early in the fourth quarter with a knee injury and did not return.
Conner did not practice Wednesday, but he does not think the injury is serious.
“I believe I’m going to be good to go,” he said.
Samuels is prepared to move into a starting role in case Conner’s injury lingers. Samuels carried three times for 18 yards and had a 13-yard reception against the Seahawks.
“Starting is always my mindset going into the week,” Samuels said, “but I’m pretty sure James is going to play.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .