Steelers’ Conner an able replacement for Bell

The Sports Xchange

September 10, 2018 at 12:10 pm.

Until Le’Veon Bell returns to the team, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be relying on James Conner to carry the load as their running back. If the season opener is any indication, he will do fine.

Conner made his first career start in Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns, and you can look at his season debut in two ways:

On the negative side, Conner committed one of the Steelers’ six turnovers and Pittsburgh had to settle for a 21-21 tie in a game they were expected to win.

On the positive side, Conner ran for 135 yards on 31 carries, scored two rushing touchdowns and caught five passes for 57 yards.

In short he was used much the same way the Steelers utilize Bell.

Conner’s 192 total yards were more yards than Bell had in any game last season when Bell was named All-Pro.

“I was really proud of the way he played in his first game,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.

Unless Bell — who remains away from the team with an unsigned franchise tag worth $14.5 million — returns to the team soon, Conner will be the Steelers’ primary running back in this Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Chiefs limited the Los Angeles Charges to 123 yards on the ground in Kansas City’s 38-28 victory on Sunday. Chargers running back Melvin Gordon had 64 yards on 15 carries as Los Angeles was forced to pass often after getting behind by a sizable margin.

When Bell does return, it will be interesting see how the Steelers utilize Conner. Will he continue to get a significant number of snaps and carries? The Steelers could be grooming Conner as Bell’s successor if Bell leaves after this season.

Conner played in 14 games last season as Bell’s backup, picking up 144 yards and averaging 4.5 yards per carry. He did not have any receptions.

Conner scored his first career touchdown, a 4-yard run with 11:19 left in the second quarter. He scored again on a 22-yard run with 5:29 left in the third quarter.

“We feel like we’re going to run the ball when we want to run the ball, so I know the mentality of the guys up front,” said Conner Sunday, according to ESPN.com. “I knew the lanes were going to be there today. I knew today was going to be a good day on the ground, just not enough to win.

“Talking with (offensive coordinator) coach Randy (Fichtner) throughout the week, I knew that was in his plan to feed me and have me out there most of the time.”

The Steelers were pleased by Conner’s performance, not only for his production but perhaps also for the pressure he might have put on Bell to return and regain his prominent role in the Pittsburgh offense.

–Linebacker T.J. Watt’s four sacks Sunday are tied as the second-most in a game in Steelers history since sacks became an official statistic in 1982. Watt also blocked the Browns’ field-goal attempt in overtime.

–Wide receiver Antonio Brown surpassed 10,000 career receiving yards on Sunday. He did it in his 116th regular-season game, tying Torry Holt for the second-fewest games in NFL history to reach that milestone. He finished with 93 yards on Sunday.

–Quarterback Ben Ben Roethlisberger committed five of the Steelers six turnovers with three interceptions and two lost fumbles. It was the first time in his career he threw three interceptions in the first half.

–Cornerback Joe Haden injured his hamstring in the second half and did not return. His status for Sunday’s game is unclear.

–Wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster was the team’s leading receiver Sunday with five receptions for 119 yards.