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James Conner makes NFL debut with Steelers

Pitt’s No. 2 all-time rusher topped 100 yards Sunday

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t look like themselves on Sunday due to some shaky quarterback play, but they were able to eke out a 17-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons in their second preseason game, thanks in large part to ex-Pitt running back James Conner.

In an impressive debut, Conner, who missed the Steelers’ matchup with the New York Giants last week, racked up a total of 101 yards, including 98 rushing yards on 20 attempts and three yards on one catch. He didn’t find the end zone, but he was instrumental in the drive that ultimately put the Steelers on top, breaking off 17- and 19-yard runs.

After the game, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin seemed pleased with Conner’s performance.

“I thought he represented himself well, particularly from a conditioning standpoint,” Tomlin said, per Steelers.com. “You can’t underscore that element of it. I know that as a professional athlete, generally he’s in shape. But he hadn’t played a lot of football, and to be able to execute the large number of snaps that he did is encouraging.”

Conner also briefly acknowledged his success, but his focus after the game was primarily on the ways he needed to improve moving forward.

“I have a lot of things to do to get better on,” Conner said, according to Steelers.com. “I’m definitely gonna get on those JUGS machines after practice and make sure my hands are ready for the next game.”

Drops were Conner’s only notable issue on Sunday. Tomlin mentioned one of them in his postgame press conference, and Conner was reportedly consoled on the sideline by teammate Coty Sensabaugh after his second drop, according to Bryan DeArdo of 247Sports. But that was the lone lowlight of an otherwise exciting day.

By all accounts, Sunday was Conner’s big chance to show Tomlin what he could do, and he did not disappoint. Though he was sidelined for nine days after suffering a shoulder injury in the team’s first padded practice, he was able to make up for lost time against the Falcons and put his best foot forward.

With that said, Conner obviously won’t be ousting star running back Le’Veon Bell from his starting role any time soon, as Bell is reportedly expected to end his holdout before the regular season kicks off, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN. But Conner set himself apart from the backups and may have earned himself consideration for a higher spot on the depth chart.

Any such promotion is almost certainly contingent on Conner sustaining this level of play through the remainder of the preseason, but that seems well within the realm of possibility for him. And considering Bell has only played one complete season in his career, a backup role could still lead to significant playing time for Conner.