Former Pitt star James Conner had a preseason to remember with the Pittsburgh Steelers, as he topped Tom Brady in jersey sales before ever taking the field and came back from a shoulder injury to log a 101-yard game against the Atlanta Falcons.
It wasn’t clear if anything would come of that, though, as Conner ranked behind Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis in the Steelers’ backfield hierarchy just over a month ago, according to Alex Kozora of Steelers Depot. And even in the best-case scenario, he would be blocked by star running back Le’Veon Bell on the depth chart.
Well, welcome to the best-case scenario.
The Steelers had to trim their roster to 53 players by last Saturday, and Toussaint and Davis both failed to make the final cut. Their departures definitively thrust Conner into the backup role behind Bell, who ended his holdout on Monday.
Now, with Bell having missed training camp and the entire preseason, he’ll get just one padded practice in before the Steelers’ season opener against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, according to Joe Rutter of TribLive.com. Because of that, many are wondering how much the Steelers will rely on their star running back and what that might mean for Conner.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin didn’t get into much detail on the subject during his press conference Tuesday, noting that he’s “comfortable” with Conner’s ability to handle an increased workload if Bell is limited. But quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a more pointed take.
“He’s got to be ready to go,” Roethlisberger said of Conner, per Rutter. “We’re not really sure what kind of football shape Le’Veon is going to be in Sunday. I would anticipate and I think James is anticipating and ready to get quite a few carries.”
While Roethlisberger won’t be making personnel decisions for the team ahead of Week 1, it’s telling that a veteran close to the situation envisions Conner playing a prominent role. It also happens to fit in with the Steelers’ recent history, as they leaned heavily on both Bell and DeAngelo Williams in the backfield over the past two seasons.
Of course, there’s no question that Bell will be the Steelers’ first choice at running back if he’s ready to play Sunday, and it sounds like that will be the case. But the Pitt faithful looking on might get a glimpse of Conner in meaningful league action much earlier than expected.