Tim Benz: With questions in Steelers passing game, James Conner must be sharp from Day 1
Most of the questions on the first day of Pittsburgh Steelers training camp last year were about Le’Veon Bell, his contract status and the state of the running game in his absence.
James Conner answered many of those questions and rendered many of the concerns moot with a Pro Bowl season as Bell’s replacement at running back.
He wasn’t Bell. But he was close.
Bell had 1,946 yards from scrimmage in 15 games in 2017. Conner had 1,470 in 13 games last year.
So now the question shifts from, “What can James Conner do?” to “Can James Conner do it again?”
“You’ve got to prove it every day,” Conner said Thursday as he reported to Saint Vincent College. “We are getting judged every day on how we worked. I proved it. But nothing I did last year can help (this year). I’m just going to try to earn it every day.”
Because this year’s notable absence is a different “Killer B.” It’s Antonio Brown, who has been subtracted from the 2019 roster. So the running game may need to be especially sharp early in the season as the passing game works itself into form.
There are going to be a lot of moving parts in that passing game. Brown no longer is going to be the “X” receiver on every play. Different pass-catchers will take on that job at different times. JuJu Smith-Schuster may be the primary pass option on most routes. But roles beyond his will have to be carved out based on how the likes of Donte Moncrief and James Washington perform.
How healthy and how involved can Vance McDonald be? Who will win the slot receiver battle between Eli Rogers and Ryan Switzer?
That’s a lot to hammer out for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner. So in 2019, it would be wise to lean on the Pro Bowl running back more than the Steelers did a year ago.
Especially early in the season.
“He’s highly conditioned and focused,” coach Mike Tomlin said of Conner. “I see the natural growth and maturation that you see in a professional. I like what I have seen from him through the OTAs and the opportunities to run across him this summer.”
The Steelers threw the ball an NFL-leading 689 times last year. Their pass-play percentage (67.39%) narrowly trailed Green Bay’s (67.54%) for the highest in football.
Conner averaged 4.5 yards per carry in 2018, higher than Bell’s career average of 4.3. Yet only the Packers had fewer carries (333) than the Steelers (345).
“I really don’t know how this year will play out,” Conner said. “The running back group will make sure all of us come ready to play. We’ll see what happens.”
Conner may be onto something talking about “the group.” Perhaps the Steelers stayed away from running Conner too much a season ago because they were worried about his durability.
Jaylen Samuels was an unknown commodity as a rookie ball-carrier. He was viewed as more of a utility tool in the passing game at first. And reserve back Stevan Ridley never seemed to capture the imagination of the coaching staff, maybe because of concerns regarding his ball security.
But this year, Samuels is entering camp with a 142-yard effort on his resume against New England. And the team drafted SEC standout Benny Snell from Kentucky. So, perhaps, added depth will convince the Steelers to keep it on the ground more frequently in September and October as the passing game takes time to coalesce.
“Capable, emerging players like (Samuels and Snell) provide depth and insulate through circumstance,” Tomlin said. “We lost a little something when James was injured a year ago, although Jaylen did emerge in some instances. I like the added depth and competition.”
Conner had 599 of his 973 rushing yards over the first seven games of the season.
Unless the passing game doesn’t miss Brown at all in September and October — which I refuse to assume — it would behoove the Steelers to revisit that approach in 2019.