James Conner will be the Pittsburgh Steelers’ backup running back to Le’Veon Bell this season, as he was last year. Will it be any different from the 2017 season, in which he hardly played in large part simply because Bell logs so many snaps?
The second-year player is hoping to take the answer into his own hands. If he simply plays as well as he possibly can, he believes that he can show the coaching staff that he deserves to get his snaps and that it will be to the team’s benefit to give him the opportunity to play.
To that end, he has come into this offseason in the best shape he has been at any point of playing football, and he has looked decisive and explosive with the football in his hands. We got a glimpse of that during his limited work in the preseason opener as well.
It started from the very first play of the game, during which he was able to burst through the center of the line for an eight-yard game. Had he not gotten tripped up from behind, this could have gone for a much bigger gain.
Of course, when it comes to receiving playing time, he knows full well that it will be dictated by much more than what he does as a ballcarrier out of the backfield. Conner talked about focusing on improving in all areas of the passing game, including protection. While he showed well in camp, this play shows how an in-game scenario can be a different beast.
He did continue to make up for it on his feet, pretty consistently being able to carve out decent chunks of yardage on the ground. About halfway through the first quarter, he churned out an eight-yard gain on a run in which he flashed vision, awareness of his blockers, and the ability to get skinny in the hole.
He followed that up one play later with a seven-yard run on second and two while facing a loaded box. Once again, he was able to make himself skinny to squeeze through to the far side of a narrow alley. Once on the other side, he lowered his shoulder to pick up an extra yard or two through the nearest defender.
This might not be a Hall of Fame highlight reel, but Conner is doing positive work that he should continue to build on as the preseason advances. Hopefully he will be able to participate in the next preseason game, but he appears to be nursing a minor groin injury right now.