Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
James Conner and the Pittsburgh Steelers run game are on an impressive pace
Heading into week 5 is usually is a good point to take stock of the season, and see where the team stands compared to previous years. The 2020 season is a little different, with the Pittsburgh Steelers unexpected bye in week 4 meaning they have not yet finished the first quarter of their season.
The Steelers run game has stood out enough, though, that I wanted to look at where they rank against previous Steeler teams through 4 games, and just how high they could rank after their 4th game in recent franchise history.
James Conner currently has 224 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns on 40 carries, Conner’s best 4 game total was in 2018, when he had 63 carries for 232 yards and 3 touchdowns through the first quarter of the season. Conner is a virtual lock to set a career high for rushing through the first four games in week 5, and he could do more. With a 102 yard rushing game, James Conner would record the tenth best rushing total through four games in the last 25 years of Steelers football. More impressive though is the fact that among all Steelers with 40+ rushes through the first four weeks of a season, James Conner’s 5.6 yards per carry ranks as the best mark since Barry Foster in 1991.
If Conner can run for 2 touchdowns in week 5, he’ll join the tie for second place in the franchise for most rushing touchdowns through 4 games. The top mark is held by Jerome Bettis in 2004 when he had 22 yards and 5 touchdowns. Conner’s receiving stats haven’t reached the levels of his last two seasons, and Conner would need to gain 109 yards from scrimmage to match his 2018 mark of 396 yards.
As a team the Steelers already rank ahead of 16 previous Steeler teams in total rushing yards, even with the 2020 team only playing 3 games so far. They already rank ahead of the 2017-2019 Steeler teams, and need to gain 31 rushing yards to pass both the 2016 and 2015 Steelers. The 2014 Steelers were a dynamic rushing team early on, and the 2020 Steelers would need to run for 157 yards in week 5 to overtake them. If they can pull that off, it would be the best rushing totals to start a season since 2007, when Mike Tomlin was busy running the wheels off of Willie Parker.
Thinking of that 2007 season, the most promising number for the Steelers run game so far this year might just be that James Conner’s 44.4% of team runs is the third lowest by a Steelers leading rusher since Bill Cowher took over as coach in 1992. The two teams that spread the ball around more were the 2015 Steelers when Le’Veon Bell missed two games, and the 2012 season when Isaac Redman was the teams leader in rush attempts through 4 games. The Steelers have more rushing yards already than they did after 4 games in 2012, and need 28 yards to catch that 2015 Steelers run game.
The 2020 Steelers are running the ball more effectively than they have in a long time, and they are doing it while running James Conner less than they have ran their leading rushers in the past. For his part, Conner’s production per carry is among the best this franchise has seen in a long time.
The return of Ben Roethlisberger has backed defenses out of the box, and the Steelers have responded with the 8th ranked run game in the NFL, both in yards per carry and in yards per game. So far the Steelers are doing a great job of involving multiple running backs in the offense, putting up impressive numbers while keeping Conner from being over-used. In week three the Steelers running backs carried the ball 33 times, but James Conner accounted for only 18 of those runs, and while the 15 carries by other backs only gained 53 yards (3.5 ypc), keeping Conner from wearing down is well worth the drop off from his 18 carries for 109 yards (6.1 ypc) in week 3. If the other running backs can increase their own production the Steelers will be even better for it.