Fantasy Football: What to Expect from the Pittsburgh Steelers' Backfield

Le'Veon Bell's holdout was expected to heavily impact the Steelers' offense, but James Conner has kept it rolling in his stead. What does his success mean going forward?

Running back Le'Veon Bell is currently tied with me -- and just about all of you reading this -- in rushing yards this season, with a grand total of zero. Folks that drafted him on their fantasy teams have been punished by Bell's unorthodox holdout. The only benefit of it is the absence of the fantasy football team name Le'Veon a Prayer.

Most casual fans would seem to think his holdout has also punished the Pittsburgh Steelers and their offense, as they have started the season with a 3-2-1 record. But has his absence actually hurt the Steelers?

Bell's backup and hair aficionado, James Conner, has done well in Bell's absence. His off-the-field story is an inspirational one, but how has his play on the field matched up with Bell? And what can it tell us about their workloads moving forward for fantasy football owners?

Rush Hour

Using numberFire's Net Expected Points metrics, I wanted to take a look at how Conner has fared over the first six weeks and then compare it to Bell's 2017 stats. First, let's take a look at their rushing numbers.

Rushes Rushing NEP Rushing NEP/P
Le'Veon Bell (2017) 321 -3.81 -0.012
James Conner (2018) 103 -1.19 -0.012

I concede that Conner's sample sizes are smaller throughout this article, but the two backs' rushing efficiency is nearly identical. You'll notice that their rushing numbers per play lead to negative results. That's because passing is much more efficient than rushing in the NFL.

Rushes Rushing Successes Success Rate
Le'Veon Bell (2017) 321 127 39.56%
James Conner (2018) 103 45 43.69%

A successful play is when the play results in positive Net Expected Points (NEP). On his rushes, Conner has had a higher success rate -- the rate at which a play adds positive NEP -- in 2018.

If you want to break it down to simpler stats, Bell averaged 4.0 yards per carry last season. Conner is averaging 4.4 yards per carry through 6 games.

Explosiveness also matters when it comes to these numbers. Last season, out of his 321 carries, Bell only had 3 carries of 20 yards or more. On just 103 carries, Conner -- on the back of some mean bulldozer running -- has 5 carries of 20 yards or more.

This is all fine and dandy, but Bell might be the best receiving running back in the league. How do their numbers compare there?

On the Catch

Though most would give Bell the decided advantage, let's not look past what the numbers have to say on the subject.

Receptions Reception NEP Reception NEP/Rec
Le'Veon Bell (2017) 85 34.74 0.409
James Conner (2018) 26 14.03 0.540

Again, we are dealing with a small sample size here, but Conner has actually been more efficient with his 26 receptions on a per-catch basis.

Receptions Reception Successes Success Rate
Le'Veon Bell (2017) 85 53 62.35%
James Conner (2018) 26 15 57.69%

When it comes to reception success rate, Bell had a higher success rate on 85 receptions. Because of this small sample size, if one more of Conner's receptions were deemed successful, his rate would be 61.54% or higher. So, the difference isn't as distract as you might expect.

And if we return to less advanced stats as our means of measuring, Bell averaged 7.7 yards per catch last season. Conner is averaging 9.9 yards per catch through six games.

If we look at explosive reception plays, or plays of 20 or more yards, Bell racked up 8 such receptions, while Conner has 3 receptions of 20 or more yards through Week 6.

The Verdict

It's fair to say that Conner could regress as his rushing attempts and receptions increase, and his body takes on the wear and tear of a full season. On the other hand, there's a chance that Conner, who is getting his first real run as a starter, will improve as the season progresses.

Rumors are swirling that Bell will return during this Week 7 bye, but we have heard these rumors many times this year. Whether Bell returns or continues to ride his Jet Ski around Miami, the Steelers are going to be just fine without him. They're getting the same kind of production for a fraction of the price.

Fantasy Outlook

As Week 6 wraps up, it's very difficult to project how the rest of the season plays out for the Steelers' backfield. Bell could show up as reports suggest, but those reports seem to be iffy, based on Ben Roethlisberger's postgame press conference on Sunday. Roethlisberger joked that today was Conner's last game since Bell is returning.

Head coach Mike Tomlin has also refused to talk about Bell at all during this season's meetings with the media. It really gives us no indication as to how it will be handled. So let's make some educated guesses.

Back v. Back

Using FanDuel (half-PPR) scoring, Conner has averaged 21.3 fantasy points per game. Last season, Bell averaged 19.9 fantasy points per game. But let's break this down on a per-touch basis.

Total Fantasy Points Touches Fantasy Points per Touch
Le'Veon Bell (2017) 299.1 406 0.74
James Conner (2018) 128.0 129 0.99

Conner has been more efficient on a per-touch basis. Beginning in Week 8 (after the Steelers' bye), it's probably safe to assume that Conner will remain the starter even if Bell returns. Last season, he started slowly after holding out, so he could take time to work his way back to full conditioning. It's improbable Steelers are going to hand him the "starting job" immediately, if at all based on Conner's impressive play.

If Conner Starts

So, if Conner returns with a starting role and sees around 75% of the carries, he will be getting about 18 carries per game. The Steelers have averaged about 25 rushing attempts since the beginning of 2017.

On the receiving end, Conner has averaged 5.83 targets per game. Last season, Bell averaged 6.63 targets per game. If we assume that the Steelers' running back will get six targets per game, Conner could be looking at around 18 carries and 4 to 6 targets per game. If we go off of his per-touch numbers, Conner should still come close to his season average of 21.3 fantasy points per game.

If Bell were to spell Conner in this scenario, he would likely receive 5 to 7 carries as well as 1-2 targets. He likely does not have standalone value in this situation.

If They Split

If Bell and Conner split time, both players will have standalone value, but both of their ceilings will be much lower. They would likely be out of the RB1 conversation and may turn into more of a 2017 Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman combo. I think this scenario is possible, but Tomlin has not been one to go with a timeshare at running back. Back when Bell tore his ACL, DeAngelo Williams took over the starting role and the majority of the workload. Now, with Bell missing, it has been pretty much all Conner.

If Bell Starts

Perhaps Conner returns from the bye and struggles against the tough Browns and Ravens defenses in Weeks 8 and 9. This could open the door for Bell.

If Bell were to see the majority of the touches, he would likely see 20-plus carries every game. The Steelers have no reason to take it easy with Bell, under the assumption that he is hitting free agency this offseason. He will also likely see his six-plus targets in his usual out-of-the-backfield role in the passing game. Bell's workload as a starter would exceed Conner's projected workload if it goes in his favor. If Bell gets hurt, they just replace him with Conner.

Again, this is all very tough to predict with Bell's absence, but these are the three scenarios. Hopefully, you have both backs and can handle the situation accordingly.