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Believing In James Conner As A Receiving Option Out Of The Backfield

As Le’Veon Bell works toward a new contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers organization during his absence from the team, many in the media have continued to tussle with the topic of his workload moving forward with a heavy focus on utilizing rookie running back James Conner.

While the obvious solution on paper is to have Conner relief Bell on occasion, the significant portion of the solution comes down to execution. Those who follow the Steelers are likely well aware of Conner’s ability to be an effective runner from his days in Pittsburgh but there is much more to preserving Bell than just running the football.

No running back in football contributed more to their team’s passing offense than Bell, as his 32.6 routes run per game not only lead all running backs but also surpassed Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones, according to Pro Football Focus.

No one in their right mind is expecting Conner to fool us with a Bell-esque performance out of the backfield. But the former Pitt running back could conserve more miles on Bell’s odometer if the Steelers have confidence in him as a receiving threat out of the backfield.

Fortunately, the Steelers have no reason to doubt Conner as his college career shows every reason to be confident in his receiving skill. Below are some of Conner’s most impressive receptions from his final season as a Pittsburgh Panther.

No easier starting point than Conner’s triumphant return in Pittsburgh’s 2016 season opener after he missed majority of 2015 with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and an MCL tear. This would be Conner’s first receiving touchdown of his college career and it surely came in impressive fashion. Conner cuts towards the middle and makes a terrific catch in the midst of three Villanova defenders, displaying the kind of toughness synonymous with Steelers’ football.

The running back screen, a simple but sneakily effective play call that the Steelers and Bell have used to their success over the last couple seasons.  A major reason for the play’s effectiveness is Bell’s nifty ability to create yards after the catch. And while Conner may not contain the elusiveness that Bell possesses, the rookie running back can still be a YAC threat in other ways, such as pummeling through defenders like on the play above.

No doubt about it, Conner’s best reception from last season. Great concentration and hands displayed by Conner as he watches Nathan Peterman’s pass float into his grasp. If Conner can extract the same confidence from Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that he garnered from Peterman, the Steelers offense will remain composed and not concerned upon Bell’s substitution.

While it is unlikely and slightly absurd to suggest that Conner will make a huge dent in Bell’s usage as a receiver, the rookie running back has showcased reasons to trust him as a reliable option. With versatility being the theme of this year’s rookie class, Conner continues to show other ways in which he can contribute to the Steelers’ success.

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