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James Conner
PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 27: James Conner #30 of the Pittsburgh Steelers carries the ball for a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Houston Texans at Heinz Field on September 27, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

NFL Analysis and News

Steelers use of lead blockers opens up lanes for James Conner

The Pittsburgh Steelers came out of their battle with the Houston Texans with a hard-fought 28-21 victory. With a gritty defensive performance and some aggressive coaching, the Steelers pulled it out. However, their establishment of a consistent run game was similarly impactful. With more creative uses of motion and lead blockers than ever before, the Steelers created wide-open lanes for James Conner all game.

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How the Steelers used their lead blockers in Week 3

In the past few weeks, Pittsburgh has gone towards more of a zone running scheme than a straight-up power-gap running scheme. That meant a lot of outside and inside zone against the New York Giants and Denver Broncos. At times they would sprinkle in the occasional power or counter play, but not on an extremely large scale.

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That changed today against the Texans, and it worked perfectly. James Conner galloped for his second-straight 100-yard rushing performance this season.  It was largely due to the adjustment of running the power and counter concepts at will against the Texans defense.

DeCastro Comes up Big

The Steelers welcome David DeCastro back into the fold after he missed the first two weeks of the season, and with his return, it is no coincidence that the Steelers were churning on plays with guard pulls. DeCastro is one of the best pullers in the game and he opened up lanes for Conner. He does a great job to hold this end out and seal off this edge.

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However, the Steelers also used the tight ends to help Conner on this day. McDonald seals off the force defender on the edge and Conner works right up the alley. Sometimes, it forced Conner into one-on-one situations where he could easily break a tackle and bust a chunk play against the Texans defense.

Yet again, it is DeCastro really creating this play. He engages his man on the second level and pushes him out of the lane. Even though Maurkice Pouncey misses his pull, DeCastro’s block allows Conner to win in space and he does that. With James Conner’s contact balance, the Steelers can trust he can beat one defender in the alley. Not only does he break one tackle here, but he fights for even more yards to get a first down.

Matt Feiler deserves some love too

The other guard, Matt Feiler, who the Steelers often call ‘Anchor’ was also great at helping Conner rip off these big runs today. Feiler, just like DeCastro, seals off the edge and Conner uses his burst to hit the alley at full speed. With an easy opportunity against two smaller defensive backs, Conner lowers his shoulder, rams through them, and gets into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.

Yet again, the principle is simple here — let the guards kick out the edge player and hope Conner can win in space. Feiler gets ahead of Conner with ease, swallows up the edge defender thus giving Conner an opportunity in the alley, and he breaks a tackle to get a big first down gain yet again.

The strategy was key to the Steelers victory

Conner has received some backlash from fans as a whole over the offseason and early in the year. Usually, it was not for his on-field play but his health issues. A game like today shows that Conner is a workhorse back when healthy and one of the better backs in the NFL quite frankly.

The second half, especially the fourth quarter, was put on ice by Conner’s success behind a lead blocker. The Steelers know Conner is a tough player to bring down when he gets into space given his contact balance and physicality. With an almost bowling ball-like effect, Conner proved that to be the case as he broke five tackles on counter or power plays alone in today’s game.

It was another close game for the Steelers, but it is undeniable that their running game is beginning to heat up with a healthy Conner at the helm. Even with Derek Watt now shaken up, the guards and tight ends proved that a lead blocker can allow Conner’s strengths to flourish and be pivotal to a Steelers victory.

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