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NFL: Despite Fumble, Pittsburgh Steelers James Conner Impressed in First Career Start
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11 Sep 2018 06:12 PM EST

-by Bo Marchionte, Contributing Writer; Image: Pittsburgh running back James Conner rushes against Cleveland. (Image Source: Frank Hyatt)

Cleveland, OH—The news that dominated the week in Pittsburgh leading up to Kickoff Weekend wasn’t the once fierce rivalry between the Steelers and the Cleveland Browns or the fact that Week 1 was approaching. It was the absence of Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell.

It sent shockwaves to many inside and outside the Steelers organization, when Bell did not arrive last Wednesday, as some reported he would (even teammates). Bell in fact did not return.

The played most impacted by his absence is second-year running back James Conner and the Steelers went about their business. He received a carry on their very first offensive drive and caught the team’s first reception on the very next play. The second series for Pittsburgh immediately went to Conner. He caught another Ben Roethlisberger pass and then carried it for a second time.

“I felt very comfortable,” said Conner who was very somber following the tie. “Wasn’t enough to win.”

Conner had a total of seven touches by the end of the first quarter the rest of the offensive had eight targets combined. Pittsburgh continued to utilize Conner, who scored the first points of the season for the Steelers. Conner took the ball in from four yards out to put the Steelers ahead 7-0 early in the second quarter.

“I walked in untouched,” said Conner. “I normally don’t do that unless the line upfront is making a hole for me. As soon as I got in, I turned around and looked at those guys who made it possible.”

It was clear that Pittsburgh was not going to shy away from feeding Conner the football. If his future performances mirror his game on Sunday, Bell might find the bench waiting for him when he returns.

Which is one way for Bell to stay healthy. Especially, with his eyes on big money in 2019.

“I block for James every day in practice,” said fullback Rosie Nix. “James is a great running back. He wouldn’t be in the NFL if he wasn’t a great running back.”

Despite Conner’s effort, the Steelers are unable to separate themselves from the Browns.

“It was weather in the game for them (Browns), as well, so we don’t seek comfort in that regard,” said Mike Tomlin. The Steelers were guilty of five turnovers, which crippled their chances of walking away winners in Week 1.

With Roethlisberger struggling to find a rhythm it was critical that Conner keep the chains moving when the Steelers had control of the football. Conner finished the game with his first career 100-yard rushing game in his first NFL start. He finished with 135 rushing yards on 31 carriers. One hell of a workload for your first game as the lead running back for the Steelers. Bell carried the football 30-plus times in three out of the 16 total games a year ago.

Like Bell, Conner proved to be a reliable weapon in the passing game coming out of the backfield with five catches for 57 yards. Conner was thrown into the fire and came out almost unscathed, but his fumble dampened the soggy afternoon.

Conner admitted the game felt like a loss to him personally. He stated that the Steelers are about winning and they failed collectively to achieve the goal.

Conner materialized into everything the Steelers had hoped when they selected him in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, potentially with an eye towards replacing Bell at some point.

With a second touchdown, the former Pitt Panther extended the Steelers lead to 21-7. However, his fumble—returned by safety Jabrill Peppers to the one-yard line—helped the Browns get back into the game.

“Of course, I talked to him,” said Nix after the game. “I talked to him like a big brother would. That’s between me and him.”

Conner said the whole team was encouraging after the fumble.

“I thought Conner played really well,” said guard David DeCastro. “I liked what I saw and hopefully we can keep it going.”

While the win eluded the Steelers, the tape will show they have a more than capable running back to ease the burden of Bell not being in uniform in Week 1 and the unforeseeable future.

“It is what I expected,” said Conner. “It’s the mentality of our offense. We feel like we’re going to run the ball when we want to run the ball, so I know the mentality of those guys up front. I know the lanes were going to be there today. I knew today was going to be a good day on the ground, just not enough to win. I have confidence in myself and the guys in front of me blocking, so it’s what we expect to do.”

To read more from Bo Marchionte at, click here.

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