During the first two weeks of training camp, one preseason game and two episodes of HBO's Hard Knocks, there have been multiple storylines developing around the Cincinnati Bengals. One intriguing example is the battle for the starting fullback position between John Conner and Orson Charles.
Conner—the four-year pro—has been a powerhouse at the position so far in 2013. During practice, the Oklahoma Drill and his first preseason game, he was routinely blowing up would-be tacklers while paving the way for Bengals running backs.
On the other hand, Charles—a converted tight end—is still looking to grasp the position. Although he remains a terrific pound-for-pound blocker, he struggles with fundamentals and reading blocking assignments.
There is plenty of hype surrounding Charles due to the possibility of making the Bengals offense much more dynamic due to his versatility. He has received so much hype that Conner seems to have almost been forgotten.
However, that was not the case during the second episode of Hard Knocks which briefly showcased the positional battle and brought Conner back into the spotlight.
During the episode, Bengals running backs coach Hue Jackson made it very clear what he expected out of his fullbacks:
We want our fullbacks to be heat-seeking missiles.
Conner was exactly that.
Looking back to the last time Conner saw meaningful action on the field was during the 2012 Wild Card Game against the Houston Texans. During the game, Conner only saw five offensive snaps, but he made them count. He was given a positive-1.1 rating by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
As Conner continues to build upon that stellar performance, let's take a look at the reasons why he was graded so highly during that game.
Conner is highlighted here as the up back offset on the weak side of the formation with BenJarvus Green-Ellis deep in the backfield.
The offensive line gets on their blocking assignments and Conner remains patient in the backfield while he scouts out a hole for his running back.
He successfully leads Green-Ellis through the hole—the running back remains right on Conner's heels—and only one defender stands between the running back and the open field. This is where Conner dominates.
Conner engages the defender and easily moves him to the side, paving the way for Green-Ellis to hit the open field untouched.
Green-Ellis breaks free and the play is good for 29 yards thanks to the great vision and blocking of Conner.
The fact that Green-Ellis is more of a between-the-tackles back and runs with more of a bruising style limited the reps of Conner in the Bengals offense. However, with the addition of a smaller, shiftier back in rookie Giovani Bernard, the services of Conner will be more necessary than ever.
This is the very next play from scrimmage after the Green-Ellis run. Conner gets to show his prowess in pass protection as he lines up as the up back in the I-formation.
Notice how quickly Conner reads, reacts and engages his blocking assignment—Andy Dalton has only just finished his drop. He is tasked to take on linebacker Connor Barwin by himself—no easy task for a fullback.
As Dalton evades pressure in the backfield, notice how far away Conner has pushed Barwin from the pocket. Also, take note that in this still, Conner actually pushes Barwin with so much force that the linebacker is literally airborne.
Barwin is kept far enough from Dalton throughout the play that the quarterback is able to escape pressure and run for a three-yard gain. Had Conner failed to engage his assignment, Dalton would have been much more susceptible to a sack.
These are the things that Conner does so well and so flawlessly. He may not be the sexy, versatile option coming out of the backfield like Charles, but the team will know what they are getting every time Conner takes the field.
This will certainly be a positional battle that will carry on throughout the duration of training camp and the preseason. Most likely, we will not have an idea which of these players will ultimately win the starting role until final cuts are made.
For now, it appears that Conner has the advantage.
All screen shots courtesy of NFL Game Rewind.