Rookie Back James Conner Knows ‘If You Can’t Protect, You Can’t Play’

With Le’Veon Bell still sitting out training camp, Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back James Conner has had plenty of time to be on the field with the offense learning his craft. Unfortunately for him, the majority of that time thus far has been spent as an observer, though he should be able to return soon from his shoulder injury.

But when he was in the field, he impressed, and he has remained engaged in drills even though he has not been participating. The third-round draft pick, most importantly, however, knows what he has to do in order to get on the field: gain his coaches’ trust.

And in order to do that, first and foremost, he has to keep Ben Roethlisberger’s jersey clean.

Conner sat down for an interview during Friday’s practice on SiriusXM, and one of the topics that they covered was understanding the importance of working in pass protection, and even how that differs from the college level to the pros.

Conner admitted that he has “still got a lot of work to do”, and that “It’s a lot different from Pitt with the protections”. But one thing is fundamental. “I can’t let Ben get hit”, he said. “If you can’t protect, you can’t play. So I’m still learning the playbook and the protections because that’s the most important thing”.

And it’s good, frankly, that he understands that. When you have at your disposal a back like Bell, who is capable of doing everything, and who rarely comes off the field, you’re not going to want to take him out in favor of a running back who signals to the defense that you are going to run the ball.

While Conner has also impressed in his minimal work with his soft hands as a pass-catcher, he understands that pass-protection precedes even that. “No matter what your route is, you have to protect first”, he said, while allowing that he is “doing good with it so far. I still have a long way to go before I master it and feel completely comfortable with it, but it’s a work in progress, and that’s why we’re at training camp”.

And good would seem to be a fair assessment based on the evaluation of the backs-on-backers drill that opened the padded portion of the Steelers’ practice, which the rookie did get a chance to participate in. he did well enough to get his coaches’ and teammates’ attention.

“That’s the drill where you find out your physicality”, he said of the blocking drill. “So we put the pads on, and that’s one of the keys to my game is being physical, so I like that drill”.

Not every running back does. Just ask Brandon Brown-Dukes. But Conner’s physicality is one of the reasons the Steelers drafted him, and it should serve him well once the games begin. Assuming he is able to stay on the field.

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