The RB position took some incredible hits in week 13. The fantasy world went tilting on the Kareem Hunt news early in the week and if that weren’t enough, there were some key injuries at the position as well. One injury, in particular, is almost just as devastating as the Hunt news. The Steelers RB James Conner suffered an ankle injury late in Sunday nights game against the Chargers.
The Conner injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. Owners are gearing up to take center stage in their leagues as they head for the title. A majority of them probably have Conner on them too. Despite an early designation to “out” for Conner in week 14, there’s no indication that his ankle injury is anything major. However, it has been diagnosed as a high ankle sprain – a temperamental injury to say the least. This could mean owners could be without him for their championship run.
The Steelers are no stranger to being without their top RB and so far, they’ve had success with the “next man up” mentality. The question is, whos the next man up? When Conner went down Sunday night, we saw Jaylen Samuels come in and immediately make himself known. But Steven Ridley looms in the background, potentially creating a committee approach going forward. With Conner owners in mind, today’s Rushing Report will profile both guys to give a better idea of who may benefit most from the expected workload increase going forward.
Fantasy Football Rushing Report: Steelers
Week 13 Recap
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) December 3, 2018
James Conner’s 15-60-2 rushing statline won’t go unmentioned in this recap. However, due to the time and nature of his injury, I won’t be touching on him too much. Conner was unable to get much going in terms of yardage throughout the game. However, he was able to capitalize on a few scoring opportunities. A few penalties and Big Ben’s ability to air the ball out on the Chargers defense put the Steelers in plus field position. Allowing Conner to notch two short rushing TDs early in the game. He had 43 yards from scrimmage and two rushing TDs going into halftime.
The Chargers rumbled back in the second half essentially forcing Ben and the Steelers to abandon the run game due to game flow and deficit. So much so that they only rushed the ball seven times for 41 yards in the second half. To make matters worse, late in the fourth while mounting a game-tying drive, Conner sustained his ankle injury. On that same drive, Jaylen Samuels was the recipient of two quick passes in the red zone. One ultimately resulting in a 10-yard TD reception for the rookie. His second of the season.
The Steelers loss on the scoreboard doesn’t affect fantasy owners the way the loss of Conner does. Sure, it sucks for Pittsburgh fans but we’re talking fantasy here. Week 13 showed us that the high powered Steelers are susceptible to moving away from the run when being down, even with a back like Conner. So, not only do we have a question of who the next guy is, but also how effective will they really be? let’s crunch the numbers and see.
What The Data Tells Us
Following the news of James Conner, the fantasy world made haste in declaring Jaylen Samuels the RB to bet on for the coming weeks. Rightfully so after seeing the Steelers plug him in directly after Conner went down Sunday night. Samuels also mixed in to spell Conner throughout the night but all his meaningful production came after Conner was injured. The stage was already set for Samuels to succeed when he entered the game which causes questions as to what he will do with increased work.
Samuels was labeled a TE/FB at NC State but had great all-around production in college. His final year in college he racked up 153 total touches for 1,000 yards and 16 TDs from scrimmage. He was very efficient in terms of rushing TD production as 12 of his 16 TDs came on the ground. His yardage and touches total nearly split in half between both rushing and receiving. Samuels tested very well at the combine in terms of athletic ability. He was the 10th ranked RB/FB of the 2018 class in terms of SPARQ score and ranked in the 70th percentile for all NFL RBs.
Samuels likely won’t see the same usage as Conner did. He profiles as more of a receiving threat with seven receptions for 54 yards and two receiving TDs. His overall skill set caters to the Steelers verticle offense allowing Big Ben an outlet to check it down to his RB. But as seen in the image above, Ben is only targeting his RB on 15% of his total attempts this year. His lowest since 2015. Something to keep in mind as Samuels continues to build hype.
The Conner injury has unearthed Ridley as an option to work into the Steelers rushing attack. He hasn’t seen game action since week 10 and wasn’t really a factor before Conner’s injury. To his defense, neither was Samuels. Ridley only has 18 attempts for 56 yards and 0 TDs on the season. To no one’s surprise, he hasn’t been used in the passing game either. Totaling just three receptions on four targets for 18 yards through the air. He’s never been a pass-catching back in his career so those numbers shouldn’t be shocking.
Ridley has missed half the season this year and his stat line reflects it. But in the games he has been in, the run game has seemed to be considerably better. Using the Weekly Splits tool on FFStatistics.com, we can see how much Ridley has affected the Steelers rushing attack. The data above paired with Ridley’s past statistics tell me that he helps balance the offense when he’s in the game. Highlighted rows 5-9 show that the Steelers run more, pass less, and actually have greater receiving and rushing TD production with him in the game.
As seen in the rushing heatmap above, Ridley’s YPC aren’t eye-popping. But his rush attempts percentage tells us he’s generally used between the tackles. Looking at both charts, as well as Samuels usage thus far, I can draw a pretty fair conclusion here for Ridley. He helps keep the Steelers offense honest in both the rushing and receiving game. The Steelers fair better with him and actually see better production in the passing game. Likely because of defenses having to drop an extra guy in the box for fear of the run. Either way you spin it, this clearly says he’s a factor for the Steelers.
It’s very easy to fall in love with the skillset that Jaylen Samuels presents. It’s also very easy to forget that Ridley can still run the ball. James Conner is leaving behind a massive workload accounting for 80% of all offensive snaps. It’s hard to fathom that either Samuels or Ridley could handle that themselves. Neither guy is a workhorse the way Conner is. With that said, it’s likely we’re going to see somewhat of a Running Back By Committee (RBBC) approach for the Steelers in the coming weeks.
When I say “somewhat”, I mean that I believe that Samuels versatile skill set will gain him more market share of the Steelers offense. And likely more fantasy points for your team. The Steelers pride themselves as being a verticle threat offense which allows the RB to run routes out of the backfield. But the same offense is predicated off a run gap scheme. That typically means that the threat of the passing game helps open easier running lanes for a guy like Ridley to gain some room between the tackles.
In standard format, I give the nod to Ridley. We saw James Conner score twice from the one-yard line last week against the Chargers. It’s not crazy to think that Ridley will be the guy in those short yardage/goal line situations in the coming weeks. In Half and Full PPR, the nod goes to the rookie Samuels. His skill set in Pittsburgh’s offense will easily get him on the field and his pass-catching ability will be utilized plenty. Both guys have value in the coming weeks. Don’t be afraid of either one.
You can find me on Twitter @JesseReevesFF. Thanks for reading. See you next week!