Four Downs: Opponents stacking line vs. Steelers, and James Conner's still succeeding
1. Conner cuts through
He’s an inexperienced NFL running back who is supposedly a backup, part of an offense with future Hall of Famers at quarterback and wide receiver. So we all have to look at James Conner’s successes this season within the context that defenses are putting their attention elsewhere, right?
No back in the NFL has more carries this season against “eight men in the box,” according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Forty of Conner’s 103 rushing attempts — 38.83 percent — have come under such circumstances. Only two backs (Alex Collins and Royce Freeman) have a higher percentage of rushes when eight defenders are close to the line of scrimmage and relatively to the ball being snapped.
For basis of comparison, NFL rushing leader Todd Gurley faces eight men in the box just 10.08 percent of the time. Consider also that Le’Veon Bell ran that way 19.94 percent of his carries last season.
Conner, by the way, is fifth in the NFL in carries of 10 or more yards and tied for third in carries that gain at least 20 yards.
2. Speedy Brown
Antonio Brown has sped back into the NFL’s consciousness as an elite wide receiver over the past two weeks. And never more than during what has been the Steelers’ signature moment of the season has it been verified Brown was moving so fast.
The NFL since 2016 has measured the speed of every player on the field. The fastest who are acting as ball carriers are compiled and released via the NFL’s Next Gen Stats.
Brown was tracked running 21.13 mph during at least one point on the winning touchdown reception with 15 seconds left during last week’s 28-21 victory in Cincinnati. That is the fastest Brown has been measured since tracking began in 2016.
Brown’s 31-yard touchdown reception is the 17th-fastest a ball carrier has traveled this season. The only player to run faster with the ball during any Steelers game this season was on a play that — officially — gained 0 yards: DeSean Jackson peaked at 21.48 mph in returning a punt 83 yards for an apparent touchdown against the Steelers on Sept. 24. The play, though, was called back because of penalty.
3. Same look
Only one team has used fewer offensive personnel combinations this season than the Steelers. Counting all offensive snaps and the 11 men on the field for each, the Steelers have used 67 groupings. The Rams are the lone team to utilize fewer.
What does that mean? Probably not much. But it is a manifestation the Steelers have largely avoided injury, haven’t benched anybody and are content sticking with something they think works.
4. Empty feeling
The Steelers are off this week, something alone that is enough to make Pittsburgh sports fans feel empty. But rarely have they ever been as bored over a full weekend.
Not only are the Steelers off, so is Pitt. And in an extremely rare quirk, the Penguins are, too. Lending mostly to the phenomenon that the NHL almost never gives a team a full weekend off (and MLB certainly never does), this is the first fall weekend (September through December) in 17 years the city’s four big sports teams (the Steelers, Penguins, Pirates, Pitt football — and throw in Pitt basketball, too) all are idle. It took a national tragedy the last time: MLB, the NFL and college football postponed all play during the weekend of Sept. 15-16, 2001, just after the 9/11 attacks.
Bye weeks didn’t exist in the NFL until 1990. In the 30 scheduled in-season Steelers’ off weeks since (there were two in 1993), Pitt shared a bye week nine times, and on two other occasions, it played Wednesday or Thursday that week. The only Steelers bye week in which the Penguins or Pirates did not also play was in 1998, when the Steelers’ Oct. 4 idle date happened to fall between the end of the MLB season and the beginning of the NHL season.
The Steelers have played in 19 Thursday night games since the introduction of bye weeks. Either the Penguins, Pirates and/or Panthers have played on each of those particular ensuing Saturdays and/or Sundays.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.