The Pittsburgh Steelers managed to beat the Cleveland Browns 38-7 despite Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger having his least productive full-game effort since Oct. 20, 2013, and that was due in part to the contributions of Pitt alum and Steelers running back James Conner, who ran for 100 yards for the third time in his last four games.
All told, Conner ran for 101 yards and one touchdown on 20 carries on a day when the Steelers leaned heavily on their running game. In total, the team ran the ball 37 times and only passed the ball 23 times. Conner, living up to the “bell cow” label bestowed on him by Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, got the vast majority of the carries, with Benny Snell getting six, Anthony McFarland getting three and non-running backs splitting up the rest.
Unlike in previous weeks when Conner was entrusted with running out the clock late in games and gathered the bulk of his yardage in garbage time, this time around, the Steelers running back’s contributions were spread evenly throughout the game. In fact, one of his best drives was the first of the day, as he came up with 27 yards and helped the team gain a three-point lead. Conner then scored on a three-yard run in the second quarter.
Conner faced criticism for his shaky debut this season, and his status as the team’s go-to back was in serious doubt after he left that game with an injury and saw Snell run for over 100 yards as he sat out. However, he made a statement in his return, with back-to-back 100-yard games, and now, he has a third and appears to be on a positive trajectory with one of the strongest teams in the league.
The Steelers, who are now 5-0 for the first time since 1978, will look to keep their perfect record intact next week against the undefeated Tennessee Titans, and Conner could play a key role in that matchup, as the Titans have been subpar against the run. Through five games, they have allowed 137 yards per game, which ranks 20th in the NFL. Factored into that average is a 226-yard performance by the underwhelming Minnesota Vikings, but the Titans bounced back and held their next two opponents under 100 yards rushing each.
Conner currently has a total of 369 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 75 carries this season, making him a top-10 running back in the league in yards and scoring. His 4.9 yards per carry fall just outside the top 10, ranking 11th in the league. And next Sunday, he will face the league’s top rusher in Derrick Henry in a showdown between ex-AFC Central rivals.