Pitt alum and Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner suffered a left ankle injury last week, but he made a statement in his return to action on Sunday, running for 106 yards in the 26-21 win over the Denver Broncos.
Conner got off to a decent start, as he ran for eight yards on his first touch of the day. That came on the Steelers’ first drive, which was doomed by passing-game miscues that set the team back almost 10 yards. However, on his second touch, which came on the team’s second drive, Conner ran for 11 yards and a first down. He then punched in a two-yard run for a touchdown, capping off the drive and giving the Steelers a seven-point advantage.
James Conner TD #Steelers pic.twitter.com/4WO8HSlcdN— Steelers Depot (@Steelersdepot) September 20, 2020
The remainder of the first half was quiet for Conner and the Steelers’ running backs in general, and the Pitt product went into halftime with a total of 40 yards on 10 touches. Thirty-four of those yards came on nine rushes, and six came on one reception.
However, Conner’s chief contribution on Sunday came in the last few minutes of the fourth quarter. Tasked with running out the clock and guarding a five-point lead, Conner was given the ball four times. First, he ran for a five-yard gain and forced a Denver timeout. Then, he broke free for a 59-yard gain that put the Steelers in the Broncos’ red zone.
James Conner big run #Steelers pic.twitter.com/py1DbDd3sg— Steelers Depot (@Steelersdepot) September 20, 2020
Conner would run the ball twice more, gaining four yards and then none before Ben Roethlisberger kneeled down to cap off the team’s second win of the season.
In total, Conner finished with 106 rushing yards and one touchdown on 16 carries, averaging 6.6 yards per carry. He added 15 yards on two receptions, bring his yards from scrimmage up to 121 and his yards per touch to 6.7.
While much of Conner’s production came on a single play, he proved that he was a valuable contributor early in the game and reiterated that point once again in the final minutes. And his timing could not have been better, as Benny Snell was coming off a 100-yard game of his own and threatening Conner’s status as the Steelers’ bell-cow running back.
For now, it seems as if Conner has successfully defended his status as the Steelers’ No. 1 running back, and while that may well be challenged again in the future, he should be able to regain the coaching staff’s trust if he continues to produce at this level.