Photo by DMerk submitted on the Pittsburgh Beautiful app
I feel like a dad when I think of James Conner.
Not his dad, just a dad in general – proud of what the son has accomplished, proud of what he’s overcome, but also slightly disappointed. Because I love him, my disappointment is overridden by my belief in him that he will succeed.
This is where parenting crosses dangerous lines. At some point, ceilings are reached, as are the limits of achievement.
James Conner seems to have hit his ceilings.
No James Conner story is complete without the requisite, “one has to admire Conner’s personal triumphs, and so on, and so on,” and one does, but one can also ask serious questions about Conner’s worth as a starting running back in the NFL.
The Steelers never needed Conner more than they needed him in the fourth quarter of yesterday’s 24-20 loss in San Francisco. Not to pop off big run – but just to do the most fundamental thing a running back must do – secure the football.
Conner’s lost fumble at his own 24 with 5:29 to play and his team up three was the third time over the past two seasons that Conner put the ball on the ground and allowed an opponent to either tie or win the game.
If either of Conner’s gaffes from last year do not occur and the Steelers win either of those games, they make the playoffs.
This year’s fumble is only costly now because the Steelers were desperate to win a game yesterday to get back to some respectable shouting distance in the AFC.
Has Conner proven himself to be less than dependable? Is it time to bench him and try something different? Those who love the Conner story say no – he is a tough man who will figure it out – stick with him. Those who would rather the Steelers succeed as a team, however, are growing weary of big fumbles at big times of big games, or of a lack of production in games against good teams, or injuries that have sidelined Conner in the closing weeks of two seasons.
I wrote last week that the Steelers need more from Conner.
They do – desperately.
Right now, the Steelers are a team without a feature back. In 13 career games against teams in the top half of run defenses in the NFL, Conner is averaging 3.5 yards a carry, has amassed just 389 yards in those games, and has scored four touchdowns. Take out his pointless rookie season, and Conner is down to 335 yards in 8 games. Take away one good game against Baltimore last November (Conner’s last good performance, a dismal 8-game stretch), and Conner is averaging 3.0 yards per carry against top-half run defenses.
Throw in the fumblitis at big times, and what Conner has given away greatly outweighs what he has given in some very key moments.
Any statistic can be isolated to make a player look bad – or good – but something is not quite right with James Conner in 2019, and the Steelers are left now without a Hall-of-Fame quarterback and feature running back. Hopefully the bungling Cincinnati Bengals are the cure for what is ailing the Steelers run game.
- Hard to argue that the Steelers’ season is not already over, but I will. Yes, 0-3 is a huge hole, and climbing out without Big Ben or any semblance of a run game seems preposterous, but there is good news – the schedule. None of the Steelers’ losses are to divisional opponents, and the AFC North does not exactly look like the class of the NFL. Baltimore is two games ahead, and gave Kansas City all it could handle yesterday, but have two wins against winless teams (the Dolphins being one). The Browns have underwhelmed and the Bengals are also winless. Perhaps a loss at home next Monday night to the Bengals is the coup de grâce for the 2019 Steelers, but a win, even over the lowly Bengals, could be the first step to recovery in 2019.
- The Minkah Fitzpatrick debut was impressive. His impact was immediate and the difference in the Steelers’ secondary was noticeable. The defense and the emergence of a run game will be key factors in whether or not the Steelers can recover in 2019, and at least Fitzpatrick provides a bright spot.
- And that’s how the Pitt Panthers pull me back in. Spare me the, “Narduzzi made a gutsy call,” comments. He did not – he made the right call. A big part of me believes that if the fourth-and-goal play that beat UCF had come four minutes earlier in the game, Narduzzi would have kicked another field goal. The good news is that the Panthers, whether through Narduzzi or offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, put in a goal line play that gave them a chance to score. I do love that seemingly every year, the Panthers give us suffering faithful a reason to stand and proclaim, Hail to Pitt!