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Four Downs: In-depth look at Steelers RB James Conner | TribLIVE.com
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Four Downs: In-depth look at Steelers RB James Conner

Chris Adamski
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers Antonio Brown celebrates with James Conner after Conner’s touchdown against the Browns in the third quarter Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018 at Firstenergy Stadium Cleveland Ohio.

1. Closer look at Conner

Like the man he is filling in for (replacing?), James Conner led the NFL in yards from scrimmage after his first NFL start. No player has more scrimmage yards per game since 2013 than Le’Veon Bell. But the NFL’s Next Gen Stats provide a deeper dive into Conner’s debut as a feature back during the 21-21 tie at Cleveland last week.

That Conner amassed 135 rushing yards is impressive considering the Browns had eight men around the line of scrimmage on 16 of his 31 carries. Only four running backs in the NFL faced that more often in Week 1.

What else stood out was Conner’s speed and patience. Only three players at any position had a play in which they carried the ball faster than the 21.03 mph Conner ran during his 22-yard touchdown run. Just eight of 33 qualifying NFL running backs had a better efficiency rating with their carries (3.53 yards traveled per yard gained). Conner seemed to emulate Bell’s patience: Just five running backs spent fewer than the 3.02 seconds, on average, Conner spent behind the line of scrimmage with the ball.

2. Better debut?

Like Conner, Bell also had two rushing touchdowns in his first NFL start. But Bell wasn’t nearly as productive — and the team result was worse (believe it or not, worse than tying Cleveland).

It was Sept. 29, 2013, in London when a rookie second-round pick from Michigan State played his first meaningful pro game, reaching 57 rushing yards on 16 carries and adding two catches for 27 yards. But none of Bell’s carries went for longer than 11 yards, and the Steelers lost 34-27 against winless Minnesota to fall to 0-4. Bell wouldn’t get his first 100-yard game until his 12th start. He wouldn’t surpass Conner’s 135 rushing yards until his 15th start or Conner’s 192 yards from scrimmage until his 24th.

3. Head of the class

Arguably the biggest question mark among all Steelers starters to open the season was Jon Bostic. By one measure (albeit a subjective one), the journeyman inside linebacker was the Steelers’ best player in the season opener. Bostic was given a 90.5 rating by Pro Football Focus, the best of any Steelers player and second best of any NFL linebacker. Bostic, more objectively, showed versatility in playing 59 of the Steelers’ 89 defensive snaps last week. He was in on nine tackles, two for a loss including one sack on six pass-rushing opportunities. Roughly half of his snaps were in run defense and half in coverage.

4. Mike’s Big & Tall

The Steelers are the heaviest and tallest team, on average, in the AFC. According to figures provided by the league in its analysis of 53-man rosters on opening weekend, the average height of a Steelers player is 6.22 feet. The only team in either conference with a greater average weight than the Steelers (247.92 pounds) is Seattle (250.55).

Want someone to thank for the trivial recognition? Zach Banner, the 6-8, 360-pound tackle signed in August. But just imagine how tall and heavy, on average, the Steelers would be had they not traded for Ryan Switzer (5-8, 185) two weeks before the season began?

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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