Week 4 Film Study: Conner The Receiver vs. Conner The Runner

It is never easy trying to fill the shoes of an All-Pro player, this challenge was one that second-year running back James Conner was willing and ready to undertake coming into this season. To his credit, Conner has not only adjusted well to his new role, he has somewhat exceeded expectations but not in the way that you think. Conner’s debut as starting running back started off in the best way possible in week 1 against the Cleveland Browns, as he rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns. Despite the end result of that game, many in the fanbase believe that he was on pace to make All-Pro running back Le’veon Bell an afterthought. Since then, Conner has not had nearly the success he had in that first game. As a matter of fact, Conner has since averaged only 32 yards in the subsequent games following his debut.  With all this noted, what has been revealed in his production declined as a running back, is his capabilities as a receiver.

In reviewing his performance against the Baltimore Ravens, I realized that he was becoming more comfortable as a receiver coming from the backfield than a runner. Right before our very eyes, Conner the running back is becoming Conner the receiver, and this unforeseen change is part of what is hindering the Pittsburgh Steelers offense.

James Conner The Runner

To understand Conner as a running back, it is important to understand his running style. In essence, it is an aggressive, orthodox downhill style with little lateral movement. Since his running style does not have many angles to it, it is predictable in nature; this is why I deem his style to be blocker-dependent. When Conner’s initial move fails, he does not display the ability to improvise by cutting outside or in different angles. In other words, when plan A of his run fails, Conner does not have a plan B or C; as a result, he becomes easier for opposing defenders to stop.

Field vision is an essential skill for a running back. One of the deficiencies in Conner’s running is his inability to see everything unfold upfront before making his move. Let’s take the example seen in the clip below. On this play, Conner takes the C gap outside and gets forced out of bounds by the Ravens defense after gaining about 2 yards. If one were to rewind this play, notice the gap that is opened by guard David DeCastro on the counter (the B gap), Conner had just enough time to hit that gap which would have given him a greater gain. It is small details like this that make a difference.

James Conner The Receiver

What has been revealed this season is Conner’s ability to catch the ball in open field. Conner does not possess the ability to run detailed routes, he generally runs a delay route and is open enough for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to deliver him the ball. Nonetheless, part of what makes Conner a good receiver for his position is his soft hands and his ability to secure the ball after the catch. In terms of his yards after the catch, much of the time he is able to amass a good amount of yards if he turns in time to look upfield.  This example below show his ability to secure the catch but is unable to gain any substantial yards.

In this 2-point conversion sequence following receiver Antonio Brown‘s touchdown, Conner will run a flat route outside. Notice how quickly he turns upfield once he makes the reception. The smooth transition from receiver to runner allowed him to see the Ravens defense flying at him and evade the tackle to find the end zone. This was the best example of Conner’s effectiveness as a receiver in this particular game.


As much as I appreciate Conner as a receiver, the Steelers offense will benefit more from Conner the running back. A big reason for the offensive imbalance seen in the last few weeks is correlated to the absence of a consistent ground attack. Conner is a hard worker that comes in every game with the right intentions, yet if this Steelers offense is looking get back on track, Conner’s good intentions will need to materialize into the type productivity which will help this unit get back on track.


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