Even though Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has participated in just two of the team’s OTA practices entering Thursday, he’s seen enough of second-year running back James Conner to know he’s made some improvements since his rookie season.
“I think he’s looking really well right now,” Roethlisberger said of Conner following the Steelers Wednesday OTA practice. “I like what he’s doing. He took those rookie kind of hiccups last year and has really gotten a lot better, I think. And like I said, we’re in shorts and short sleeves, no pads right now, but I’m excited to kind of get to camp with him. He’s one that I’m excited about.”
Prior to suffering a torn MCL in his left knee during the Steelers Week 15 home game against the New England Patriots, Conner, who was selected in the third-round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of the university of Pittsburgh, had logged nearly 70 offensive snaps and rushed 32 times for 144 yards. Had Conner shown earlier during the 2017 regular season that he could be relied on to pass protect, he may have ultimately seen the field a little bit more in addition to being given more touches. According to another one of his offensive tea mates, Conner has made strides this offseason in several areas of his game and including pass protection.
“He’s a little bit more confident in the playbook, handling protections — he’s just in better shape,” Steelers tight end Jesse James said of Conner not long after OTAs got underway in May, according to Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com. “He’s running fast, running every ball to the end zone. He looks good.”
Conner does indeed look good, judging by the pictures and videos of him that have been posted on steelers.com over the course of the last few weeks. He looks a lot sleeker than he did last season. Conner, however, knows that despite all the accolades he’s received this offseason from his teammates that he still needs to live up to them when it matters the most and that’s during games.
“I haven’t proved anything yet,” Conner said a few weeks ago. “Just another opportunity for me to prove to my coaches and earn respect from my teammates that I’m capable of playing on Sundays.”
The Steelers will wrap up their 2018 OTA practices on Thursday and next up for the team will be the annual mandatory minicamp next week. With starting running back Le’Veon Bell not expected to be in attendance next week, Conner figures to continue to receive a good portion of reps with the first-team offense and more importantly with Roethlisberger. With that said, the Steelers quarterback let it be known on Wednesday that while some players might look good during OTAs and minicamp, training camp is really when he’ll get to be a better judge of improvement.
“Once you get to camp you get pads on and that’s when kind of real football begins and that’s when you really start to see how guys are,” Roethlisberger said. “Because there’s a lot of guys that come out here at this time of year that look spectacular with no pads on and then you get pads on and it’s a different ballgame.”