Former Pitt star James Conner made the first start of his NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, standing in for Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, who opted to sit out Week 1. During the rainy road matchup with the Cleveland Browns, he acquitted himself well, amassing 192 yards and two touchdowns, although the game ended in a 21-21 tie.
Despite his status as Bell’s backup, Conner played a prominent role in the Steelers offense from the onset of the game and didn’t disappoint. In the Steelers’ fourth drive of the first half, Conner scored on a four-yard run, advancing into the end zone untouched. After the play, he celebrated with his offensive linemen, many of whom had voiced their support for him ahead of the game.
First touchdown alert pic.twitter.com/Buqpky0uBi— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) September 9, 2018
Conner continued to contribute at an impressive rate and found the end zone once more in his team’s first drive of the second half. However, his two-yard run was called back due to a hold on Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey. Conner would make up for that on the next drive, though, with his most explosive play of the game — a 22-yard dash that gave the Steelers a 21-7 lead.
A second helping of 6️⃣ for @JamesConner_. pic.twitter.com/apgWz564A2— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) September 9, 2018
Things began to fall apart for the Steelers shortly thereafter, and unfortunately, Conner had a hand in that, as he gave up a costly fumble that allowed the Browns to climb back into the game. They would score a fourth-quarter touchdown that narrowed their deficit to seven. The Browns would eventually score again, forcing overtime and coming surprisingly close to pulling off a win.
However, fortune did not favor the Browns on that rainy afternoon in Cleveland, as Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt blocked a low field-goal attempt by Browns kicker Zane Gonzalez to preserve the tie and deny the Browns what would have been their first win since Dec. 24, 2016.
After the game, Roethlisberger, the leader of the Steelers offense, heaped praise on Conner.
“I thought he played well. He ran hard, caught the ball well, made plays for us,” Roethlisberger said, according to the team. “I told him I was really proud of the way he played in his first game.”
However, Conner was characteristically focused on the outcome rather than his performance, telling reporters in a postgame interview, “It wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t enough to win. We had some good runs and stuff like that, but it wasn’t enough to win.”
Despite his assessment of his own performance, Conner left little doubt that he’s currently the Steelers’ best option at running back. As a result, he should see regular action until Bell’s return.
Conner and the Steelers will next face the Kansas City Chiefs at Heinz Field on Sept. 16 in their home opener. That matchup is set to kick off at 1 p.m.