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James Conner goes off for 185 yards against Falcons

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The former Pitt star may soon be fighting to keep his job despite the performance

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Former Pitt running back James Conner had a sensational outing with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, as he found the end zone twice and amassed 185 yards from scrimmage, including 110 rushing yards and 75 receiving yards on 27 touches. Thanks in large part to his contributions, the Steelers were able to pull off a 41-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons.

A significant portion of Conner’s total came early in the game, as he gained 72 of the 78 yards the Steelers traversed in their opening drive. His first big play was a 29-yard reception for a key conversion on 3rd-and-1, and on the next play, he broke off a 30-yard run to land the team on the Falcons’ 8-yard line. Conner would cap off the drive with a touchdown from one yard out.

While Conner accounted for about 40 percent of his total yardage on the first drive alone, he still had plenty to contribute. The Steelers turned to him for another third-down conversion on the next drive, and the Pitt product was able to find the end zone once more late in the third quarter.

In addition to his exploits on the field, Conner has been involved in perhaps the most controversial storyline in the NFL this season, as he’s been filling in for Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, who has been holding out. However, Bell recently announced he will return for the team’s Week 7 bye and be available for the team’s Week 8 matchup with their AFC North rivals the Cleveland Browns.

That obviously leaves Conner’s role in question, which may have sparked his outstanding performance against the Falcons. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suggested as much in an interview after the game, saying, “I think James was tired of hearing about Le’Veon.”

Unfortunately for Conner, his contributions to this point may not be enough to stave off Bell’s return to the first team, as the Steelers have struggled to a 2-2-1 record this season and it could be argued that his inconsistency in the backfield has been a contributing factor to the team’s issues.

While he’s shown flashes of brilliance in a few outings, he’s also been held to fewer than 20 yards by the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens. Both of those games ended in losses.

With that said, Bell hasn’t been perfect in every game in his career, either. But he’s proven himself to a greater degree than Conner has and also happens to have multiple 100-yard games against the Browns, who he would face if he saw action in his first week back. The Steelers coaching staff would also be tempted to get the most out of him upon his return.

However, based on Roethlisberger’s largely positive comments about Conner, the fact that the Steelers seem to have rallied around the second-year running back, and the fact that trade talks are reportedly still underway despite Bell’s recently publicized wish not to be traded, it seems there’s also a good chance that Conner could hold onto the starting role even after Bell returns.

What is abundantly clear, though, is that Conner is going to have to prove he can be consistent and come up big for the Steelers in key games if he wants that to happen. He’ll get an opportunity to do just that in Week 6, when the Steelers face the Cincinnati Bengals on the road. A win would go a long way toward narrowing the gap between the Steelers and first place in the AFC North.

The division rivals are set to clash at Paul Brown Stadium this coming Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.