While Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would obviously like to have running back Le’Veon Bell with the team right now, he thinks his absence might be a blessing of sorts when it comes to the further development of second-year running back James Conner. During a Friday night interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio, Roethlisberger explained why Bell being absent the remainder of the offseason will likely help not only Conner, but the Steelers offensive line as well.
“I look at it as an awesome opportunity for James, for [Stevan] Ridley, for some of those other guys, but especially James in his second year,” Roethlisberger said. “Second year is kind of one of those, it’s that big stepping year, you know. Especially, he got some playing time but got hurt. Another year in this offense and this is an awesome opportunity for him to learn more. It’s crazy because if you think about it, it’s not just about him learning, it’s about the line learning about him. Because if you think about it his running style is completely different.
“Le’Veon has got a style of his own, right? It’s patient, he picks his holes, he dances a little bit back there, so the line kind of has to hold their blocks not knowing when Le’Veon’s going to shoot the gap. With James and a lot of other backs, it’s downhill. They’re hitting it right away so the line has to say, ‘okay, I know that I got to get on this guy right away and get that hole going as quick as I can.’ So, not only is good for James, but it’s good for the line, tight ends, other guys blocking.”
Conner has seemingly had a very good training camp to date and Steelers team president Art Rooney II even indicated as much during his Friday night interview with Pat Kirwan and Jim Miller on ‘Movin’ the Chains.’
“James really looks like so far that he’s taken that step that you hope you see from year-one to year-two,” Rooney said of Conner. “And as you say, he’s going to get a lot of reps here in the preseason and as well as the other young guys. But I think it’s a great opportunity for James Conner to see how he can do.”
Even Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert is very excited to see what Conner can do between now and the start of the regular season.
“This is James’ opportunity,” Colbert told Miller and Kirwan. “Unfortunately, Le’Veon’s not here and that’ll sort out when it sorts out. But in the meantime, James gets to take advantage of these reps and it’s important for him. Last year he pulled a hamstring in rookie mini camp and then he finally gets out here and he dings a shoulder, then he dinged a knee. Then [he] got himself healthy and was doing some good things and had the knee injury against New England.
“This year he’s in great shape. He came in, he had a whole offseason, he’s another year removed from the cancer that unfortunately he had to fight through, so I think it’s a different James Conner right now and we’re excited to see what he can do.”
While Conner struggled in pass protection during his limited playing time as a rookie, it certainly seems like he’s made strides in that phase of his game this offseason. After the team’s annual Friday night practice at Latrobe Memorial Stadium, head coach Mike Tomlin was asked if he was impressed with Conner’s showing in the backs-on-backers blocking drill.
“I just liked his demeanor,” Tomlin said. “Demeanor is a lot in a drill like that where it’s slanted toward the defense. I wanted to see him rise up against the adversity and I thought he did that and I thought because he went first and displayed that attitude, I thought, largely, his group followed.”
The Steelers first preseason game of 2018 is now less than a week away and one has to think that Conner will start that game against the Philadelphia Eagles and thus get a fair share of early carries. He ran well in his limited opportunities during his rookie season and if he can continue to do that during the preseason in addition to showing that his pass protection has drastically improved, it will give the team a lot of confidence when it comes to them knowing they have capable depth should something ultimately happen to Bell.