While it should not be terribly surprising given how many players sat out the Pittsburgh Steelers’ first preseason game, today’s contest is going to mark the debut of some highly anticipated players. Martavis Bryant is going to draw a lot of headlines, but rest assured that there are many, many people ready to explode when rookie running back James Conner carries the ball for the first time in the black and gold.
This was a ready-made story in so many ways, a story no doubt so familiar to all of you that it does not bear repeating at this time, but this evening’s game will mark a pivotal chapter. Two years ago he was battling cancer, and now he gets to try to live out his NFL aspirations on the same field he played in college.
It hasn’t been easy since he’s been drafted, actually. In fact, he has spent far more time on the sidelines nursing injuries going back to the spring than he has working with his teammates on the field. He suffered a hamstring injury during rookie minicamp that kept him out of most of OTAs and minicamp heading into the summer.
On the first day of padded practices in training camp, the third-round pick suffered a shoulder injury that resulted in him missing most of the rest of the Latrobe practices. He sat out the first preseason game as a result, but he returned to practice last week.
Even at that, he got dinged in Thursday’s practice and didn’t finish the day, and was limited on Friday. But I haven’t heard anything of yet that contradicts the earlier intention for him to get some reps in this game, even if I expect it might be fewer touches than desired.
The Steelers didn’t use a second-day draft pick on Conner because he would make for a good publicity story to sell jerseys, however. They need him to be their number two running back, and they are hoping that he can be that as soon as the regular season opener.
With Le’Veon Bell skipping training camp, his injuries have unfortunately prevented him from taking full advantage of the golden opportunity for quality reps that was right in front of his face, but since getting over the worst of the shoulder injury, things are now looking up.
It will be interesting to see when, where, and how Conner gets his work in this game. Will he start over Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis? How much will they use him in pass protection? Running routes? Will his carries be situationally based at all? At least as far as the latter question goes, the first preseason game suggests not.
I think I can say with confidence though that I’m not the only one greatly looking forward to the Pittsburgh running back taking his first snaps in an NFL game. I’m sure there will already be a number of #30 jerseys in the stands with his name on the back. It should make for a memorable moment.