Ex-Steelers RB James Conner a ‘Wrecking Ball,’ TD Machine for Cardinals

James Conner touchdown

Christian Petersen/Getty Images Running back James Conner of the Arizona Cardinals dives into the end-zone against the Green Bay Packers on October 28, 2021.

The Arizona Cardinals (7-1) lost their first game of the season on Thursday night, a 24-21 defeat at the hands of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. But the team got more of what it has come to expect from former Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl running back James Conner. That is, two more rushing touchdowns, bringing his total to eight just halfway through the 2021 season.

“Conner has been an absolute wrecking ball” for the Cardinals, noted Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic earlier this week, half of a two-headed rushing attack where he serves as the “thunder” to Chase Edmonds’ “lightning,” as Cardinals reporter Howard Balzer put it.

Edmonds is Arizona’s starter and has 75 carries for 427 yards and a touchdown, an average of 5.7 yards per carry. But when the Cardinals are in the Red Zone, or deep in their own territory, or looking to close out games in the fourth quarter, they turn to Conner, who has used his 6-foot-1, 233-pound frame to mash his way to 358 yards on 94 carries.

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James Conner’s Bold Prediction for 2021 Re-Visited

Notably, the season is playing out much like Conner predicted back in June, when he boldly predicted that he and Edmonds would be one of the best running back tandems in the league.

Conner has also turned out to be one of the bigger bargains in the league, right along with ex-Steelers offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum, a former seventh-round pick who is serving as Arizona’s starter at right tackle while on a two-year, $4 million contract.

For his part, Conner is playing on a relatively modest one-year, $1.75 million deal, one that allowed him to re-unite with former Steelers running backs coach James Saxon, who has the same role with the Cardinals. That trio has been playing a big role in producing the kind of touchdowns that Conner scored on Thursday Night Football against the Packers, including this third-quarter effort:

Not to mention this scamper, which came in the fourth quarter:

Najee Harris Has Succeeded James Conner

Back in Pittsburgh, the Steelers employ an obvious upgrade from Conner in 2021 first-round pick Najee Harris, who figures to be the Steelers’ feature back for years to come. But one wonders if Pittsburgh made a mistake in not attempting to re-sign Conner to a modestly-priced deal, in hopes of him thriving in a complementary RB2 role. It appears that may have been Mike Tomlin’s preference, as the Steelers head coach was said to be “heartbroken” over losing Conner in free agency. In addition, Conner was—and is—a popular inspirational figure in Pittsburgh, a cancer survivor with a compelling enough life story to warrant a memoir, Fear is a Choice, at the age of 25.

Meanwhile, in the wake of Conner’s departure, the Steelers have received precious little production from their backup running backs. While Harris has 102 carries for 388 yards and two touchdowns, the team’s next two leading rushers are wide receivers, with Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool having rushed for 25 and 22 yards, respectively. As for Pittsburgh’s second- and third-string running backs, Benny Snell Jr. has just eight carries for 21 yards, which Kalen Ballage has a mere six carries for 15 yards.

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