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Conner Produces at the Goal Line

After arriving in the desert, James Conner's numbers have been anything but dry.

James Conner went to the Pro Bowl in his second season in the National Football League. It looked as if the Pittsburgh Steelers had a new bell-cow running back for  seasons to come after a tremendous 2018 campaign. The next two seasons passed by and at the end of it all Conner never found his way back to his 973 rushing yard and 12 touchdown season in 2018.

Conner traded in the black and gold uniform for red and white this offseason, signing with the Arizona Cardinals and the new colors have never seemed brighter. While no longer the main running back like he was in Pittsburgh, he has found his way into an offense that utilizes all of their talented weapons. 

For Conner, that's at the goal line.

“I have a lot of pride on being on the goal line; you only get a couple chances,” Conner said. “I get real excited when the ball is right there because I’m thinking seven (points) for sure”.

All of Conner's five touchdowns this season have materialized near the goal line. The fifth-year running back produced back-to-back two-touchdown games this season, all of them earned at the 4-yard line or closer.

In the rugged 17-10 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, Conner gave Arizona its first score of the game with a 1-yard touchdown early in the game. His hard-earned scoring has him as the scoring leader among Cardinals running backs.

The five scores on the ground is one shy of his six touchdowns last season with Pittsburgh, and has already eclipsed his four touchdowns in 2019.

During his breakout season, the third-round draft pick scored nine of his 12 touchdowns inside the opposing 10-yard line. But the opportunities began to decrease for Conner in Pittsburgh. 

In his Pro Bowl season, 10% of his carries came near the goal line, which then declined to 6% in 2019 before increasing to 8% in 2020 which also saw his scoring surge back to five touchdowns. In his inaugural season with the Cardinals, Conner is currently seeing 15% of his carries near the goal line.

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For most running backs, scoring increases near the end zone, but that is if given the opportunity. Conner has managed through injuries that have limited his time on the field but arrives onto a team that reaches the red zone often.

Last season, Arizona was a top-10 team in scoring touchdowns in the red zone. With the introduction of Conner and other weapons, the Cardinals are a top-five team this season.

“We love James,” right tackle Kelvin Beachum said. “Anytime you got a back that is willing to put his head down and go forward and take a couple guys with him, that's always special.”

Running out the clock with a lead is not as flashy as celebrating in the end zone, but it is another skill Conner is bringing to this offense. With the 49ers knocking on the Cardinals door late last Sunday, Conner pushed ahead to earn first down and help run out the clock.

“James really closed the game out for us this past week which I was excited about,” Beachum said. “Being able to have him as a teammate has been really special.”

With five touchdowns and five wins under his belt this season, it is looking like the dynamic in Arizona is a perfect fit for Conner. Working alongside Chase Edmonds, the two running backs share duties.

The committee approach is a change of pace for Conner who took over for Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh. But from the get-go it was expected that Conner and Edmonds would be RB1-A and RB1-B.

“I was really open to anything the team asked me to do and I knew short yardage was a big factor in bringing me here and me also choosing to come here,” Conner said. “It’s going well so far but we got a long season, a lot of football left.”

This week Conner will face a familiar foe, the Cleveland Browns. An AFC North opponent he knows, or more so who Cleveland knows all too well. Of all of the opponents Conner has stared down, the Browns have allowed him to score the most, with five of his 27 career rushing touchdowns.

The Cardinals and Browns kick off at 1:05 p.m. Arizona time.