Coming into a Week 10 matchup against one of the worst run defenses in the NFL, James Conner was set to be a smash fantasy football play on Sunday. Instead, he put up a disappointing performance that has left many fantasy managers scratching their heads, wondering about the outlook of Conner moving forward. Are their brighter days ahead, and can Conner get back to his RB1 status that we saw in the early parts of the season, or is the unbalanced offensive attack of the 9-0 Pittsburgh Steelers enough to make us worried for James Conner’s fantasy future?
James Conner managed just 48 yards on Sunday against a helpless Bengals defense
Going against a Cincinnati Bengals defense that ranks 27th against the run, you would think that James Conner would have had his best day of the season on Sunday. Instead, both he and the entire Steelers rushing attack barely got out of the locker room. Conner carried the ball 13 times in Week 10 for a grand total of 36 yards while catching both of his targets for an additional 12 yards.
It wasn’t as if someone took over the role on Sunday either. As a team, the Steelers had only 44 rushing yards on 20 attempts. Ben Roethlisberger had more passing attempts (46) than the team had rushing yards against a defense that had allowed opponents an average of five yards per carry. They have also allowed four teams to rush for 165 yards or more against them.
Of the Steelers 44 yards on the ground, 20 yards came on four runs by Benny Snell on the final possession, and another 16 came on a single carry by James Conner. The Steelers had seven runs for zero or negative yards against a team that allowed an average of 133.1 yards rushing per game coming into Week 10.
The last two weeks have seen a concerning trend for James Conner
There seems to be a major lack of balance on this team despite what the record shows. James Conner has gone from seeing 18 or more opportunities per game in Weeks 2 through 8 to seeing just 22 rushing attempts and four targets combined in the past two outings. That drop-off of five opportunities per game over the last two weeks is alarming.
To some extent the lack of opportunities in Week 9 made sense. The Steelers had a 10-point deficit late in the third quarter against the Cowboys in the second half and needed to open the offense up in order to win the game. The bigger concern in that game is Conner averaging under 2.5 yards per attempt on the ground.
The Cowboys are next-to-last in the league in rush defense, and the Steelers couldn’t even manage to run the ball in the first half before they fell behind. The longest run they had on 12 attempts before halftime was an eight-yard scramble by Roethlisberger. Not only that, but the Cowboys allow the second-most fantasy points per game to opposing running backs at 22.74 per game. Conner managed just 20 yards in total on nine carries and two receptions.
That concerning trend was then replicated in Week 10 when he managed just 48 total yards against the Bengals in another soft matchup. In the last two games, Conner has scored a total of 10.8 fantasy points in PPR. He had scored more than that in every single game between Week 2 and Week 8.
The balance of the Steelers offense has shifted in the past two weeks
Simply put, the Steelers have transitioned to a pass-first team recently. From Weeks 1 through 8, Roethlisberger averaged 35.1 attempts per game while the Steelers averaged 29.5 rushing attempts per game during that span.
In Weeks 9 and 10, Roethlisberger has thrown the ball 88 times, nearly 13 more attempts per game, and it has taken a massive hit on the running game. In Week 9, they attempted only 18 run plays. One of those was by Roethlisberger, and two more were sweeps to Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, leaving only 15 caries as a team for the running back position.
In Week 10, we saw more of the same. Despite being ahead for almost the whole game, the Steelers attempted 20 rushes, with only 16 going to the running backs.
The offense went from a 55/45 split (pass vs. run) in Weeks 1 through 8, to a 70/30 split in the last two weeks.
With a shift in the offense as drastic as we have seen in recent weeks, what can we expect from James Conner in Week 11 for fantasy?
James Conner fantasy outlook for Week 11
Do you know the saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”
There is nothing more unbroken than a team with a 9-0 record, and QB Ben Roethlisberger knows that.
“I think you have to be able to do it when you need to do it,” Roethlisberger said. “Obviously, we didn’t run the ball well [against the Bengals], but we did other things well. We put points on the board. We scored when we needed to score. We converted when we had to do that.
“So we shouldn’t get so caught up in yards per carry or total yards rushing or things like that because really it comes down to winning the football game first, which we did, and everything kind of falls into place from there. There are going to be games when we need to run it, we need to be balanced, and there’s going to be games when we need to throw it. We just have to be ready to do it whenever we’re called for whichever situation we need to go.”
The Steelers know they have a player who can handle the ball on all three downs in James Conner, but given the recent pattern, it’s hard to think they will use him like that right now. In Week 11, that face off against the 1-8 Jacksonville Jaguars, who have allowed the ninth-most rushing yards, and the sixth-most PPR fantasy points per game to the running back at 27.8 per game.
On paper, James Conner would be a locked-in RB1, but we just had the same song and dance last week, and after two disappointing weeks, I don’t think we can go into this game with the same expectation.
James Conner is going to be treated as a low-end RB2 going forward until we see something change. Don’t get me wrong, we know he can be an RB1 every week, but I believe it is unwise to rely on that kind of performance week in and week out; just be happy when it happens and consider it a bonus.
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