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Inside the Numbers with James Conner

Inside the Numbers with James Conner

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Of all the stories dominating the NFL headlines at the midway point, there might not be a better story than James Conner.

Playing in the absence of starter Le’Veon Bell, who is holding out for financial reasons, Conner has emerged as one of the best tailbacks in 2018, and Sunday was easily his best performance yet.

The former Pittsburgh Panther rushed for a season-high 146 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-12 win over the Cleveland Browns. It was his third straight game of rushing for more than 100 yards and two scores. He’s the first-ever Steeler to accomplish that feat and the first NFL running back since 2009 (Chris Johnson).

It’s no coincidence the Steelers have won three straight games, either, and sit atop the AFC North standings. Pittsburgh has yet to lose this season when Conner rushes for more 100 yards (3-0-1).

Conner also joined elite company Sunday, becoming just the fourth first- or second-year player in NFL history to record four games with two rushing touchdowns through his team’s first seven contests, joining Steve Van Buren (1945), Jim Brown (1958), and Eric Dickerson (1983). His nine touchdowns through seven games also tied Franco Harris’ franchise record (1976) for the same mark.

To put his incredible season in perspective, Conner is currently on pace for 2,107 all-purpose yards and 20 touchdowns. In franchise history, only six players have totaled more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Antonio Brown was the last Steeler to do it in 2015 (2,074), and Bell accomplished the feat just once in 2014 (2,215). Los Angeles’ Todd Gurley was the only player in 2017 to eclipse the 2,000-yard plateau.

Speaking of Gurley, Conner trails only the Rams’ superstar (11) with nine rushing scores and is two clear of the New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara.

Here’s where Conner ranks in some other notable running back categories:

  • Seven 20-plus yard runs (T-1st)
  • 599 rushing yards (3rd)
  • 6 yards per game (4th)
  • 323 receiving yards (7th)

Among all running backs with 100-plus carries, the Erie native’s 4.7 yards per carry ranks second only to Gurley and Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon.

Additionally, Conner has done most of his work facing a crowded defensive box. More than 36 percent of his carries have come with eight or more defenders in the box according to NFL Next Gen Stats, the sixth-highest mark among all tailbacks. For comparison, New York’s Saquon Barkley has rushed against eight or more defenders in the box on 19 percent of his carries and just nine percent for Gurley.

And because a large percentage of NFL fans participate in fantasy football, Conner has been among the best late-round fliers. He was consistently drafted after the 150 pick according to FantasyPros.com, which complies consensus draft values across the industry’s most popular league hosts. Sunday was Conner’s highest point-total for the season, too, scoring 38.2 and 35.70 points in ESPN and Yahoo! standard PPR leagues, respectively.

As Bell continues to sit out, it’s only natural for Steelers fans and news outlets to compare the two running backs’ production:

If and when Bell returns, his status as the starting running back may no longer be a lock. Conner has been just as effective, and more importantly, a better bargain.

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