Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back James Conner had a very adequate NFL debut on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons as the team’s second of two third round draft picks this year ran for almost 100 yards in that preseason contest and played 54 total offensive snaps.
While Conner will likely see more action at running back in the Steelers third preseason game Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts, head coach Mike Tomlin indicated Thursday during his press conference that the University of Pittsburgh product will more than likely play quite a bit of special teams snaps in that contest as well.
“James Conner, for instance, played a heck of an offensive football game last time out, almost ran for 100 yards, but he was JV as a special teams performer,” Tomlin said of the young running back. “I’m challenging him in a big way. We expect him to give us quality contributions in the special teams game when he’s not playing running back. It’s reasonable to expect that.”
When Conner was drafted, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said that he was looking forward to Conner contributing as a special teams player during his rookie season because he appears to have the demeanor for that phase of the game even though he really wasn’t used that way during his college career. Conner’s offseason development as a special team contributor was slowed, however, due to the running back missing time not only during OTAs, but training camp as well, because of minor injuries. Tomlin addressed that slow development on Thursday.
“So, the [special teams] teaching element of it has been slowed down because of things that are outside of our control,” Tomlin said regarding Conner. “His health being central to that. So, he hadn’t done anything wrong, but there’s a certain amount of urgency that we need to see in terms of his growth and development. We’ve got to respond appropriately to the cards that have been dealt and the cards that he’s been dealt is that he hadn’t had a lot of physical work in that area because he’s missed some time.”
While Tomlin went on to say that Conner has “a lot of ground to make up” when it comes to his development as a special teams player, he sounded ready to push him on through the process of that ultimately happening.
“I’m sure he’s capable of doing it, but I’m going to apply a little pressure in that regard,” Tomlin said.
Conner only played two special teams snaps against the Falcons and judging by Tomlin’s Thursday comments, we can probably expect the young running back to receive double-digit snaps in that phase of the game Saturday night against the Colts. It will be interesting to see if he shows up not only as a member of the punt and coverage units in that game, but the return units as well.