Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner faced some questions coming into the offseason, as a season-ending knee injury cast doubt over his status as the team’s top option to back up Le’Veon Bell. However, Conner has impressed his coaches and seems poised to slide back into his old role, as he’s pulling away from his competition early in the preseason.
With two exhibition games under his belt, Conner is leading the Steelers in rushing yards despite seeing limited action, as he’s accrued 82 yards and a touchdown on nine carries for an average of 9.1 yards per carry. Even with more carries, Stevan Ridley, Jaylen Samuels, and Fitzgerald Toussaint have all fallen significantly short of Conner’s impressive average.
After Conner, Toussaint has been the team’s leading rusher with 55 yards on 14 carries for an average of 3.9 yards per carry. Behind him, Samuels has averaged 3.0 yards per carry, and Ridley, who only took part in one game, could only manage 14 yards despite taking 10 attempts.
Conner’s most notable play of the preseason came against the Green Bay Packers on Thursday night, when he broke free from the defense and ran in a touchdown from 26 yards out. His first-quarter score put the Steelers on the board for the first time in the game, and what made it all the more impressive is the fact that Conner was on the mend from a recent groin injury.
After the conclusion of the first half, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin praised Conner for his consistency and progress during an interview with Missi Matthews of Steelers.com.
”He’s been really consistent,” Tomlin said. “I liked his performance throughout training camp. I’ve been pleased with his progress.”
All of this bodes well for the franchise’s future, as the Steelers have very publicly failed to come to an agreement with Bell regarding a new contract. While he’s been the team’s starter at the position and one of the NFL’s top stars since 2013, that may come to an end in the near future.
“His intention was to retire as a Steeler,” said Adisa Bakari, Bell’s agent, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN. “But now that there’s no deal, the practical reality is this now likely will be Le’Veon’s last season as a Steeler.”
While the Steelers will likely do everything in their power to keep Bell in the fold, Conner’s talent and consistency have to be reassuring to a team that could soon find itself in transition.
The Steelers will head back to Heinz Field to take on the Tennessee Titans in their third preseason matchup of 2018 on Aug. 25. Kickoff is scheduled for 4 p.m.