As I wrote before kickoff, today was a big, big day in the life of Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back James Conner, the local kid from Erie who overcame Hodgkin’s lymphoma in order to pursue a professional career in the same building in which he felt so comfortable with the Pittsburgh Panthers.
From his very first snap, he received a healthy applause from the crowd in attendance—one they realized who it was in the game.
But while it was a big day, it was far from perfect, even though it ended on a positive note, and he finished with a good-looking stat line. All told, he ran the ball 20 times for 98 yards and caught one pass for three yards, but the statistics do not bear out the lost yardage.
He caught one pass, but he dropped two others that would have resulted at worst in third-down conversions, and potentially big gains. The first drop in particular was a product of overexcitement, no doubt, looking for an opportunity to make a big play in his first game.
Things settled down as the game wore on, and he certainly had more success the deeper the Falcons got into their bench. Tight end Jake McGee became his best friend on the field, frequently the lead blocker on Conner’s best runs late in the game, even if he did trip on his foot on one play in the backfield, resulting in lost yardage.
It was really in the fourth quarter in which the big back started to do work. On the first play at the 15:00 mark, he broke off a nine-yard gain up the middle. Later, on the next drive, he started off with a 17-yard gain of left guard followed by a 19-yarder off left tackle that set up first and goal.
From the three, Conner nearly punched it in for the score on second down, and given the momentum, I have a good feeling that he would have succeeded in finishing the job on third down…only all momentum was killed with a delay of game penalty. The third-down play did end up scoring on a pass to Justin Hunter, however.
He had six more carries in the fourth quarter after that, including a pair of runs that went for 10 yards or more, but, as mentioned, all was not perfect. After tripping on first down for a loss of two yards, then gaining 10 on second down, he was held to no gain in a short-yardage situation on third down.
Overall, it was a solid start for the rookie running back for the Steelers, the start of something that will become far bigger than the blemishes of the first preseason game of his career. He dropped a couple of passes, tripped, and left some yardage on the field, but he still showed a lot, including some surprising explosiveness hitting holes.