The Pittsburgh Steelers are not exactly unfamiliar with the idea of running backs other than Le’Veon Bell starting games for them over the course of the past six seasons. Of the 81 regular-season games played since the team drafted him in the second round in 2013, 19 have now been started by other running backs.
11 of them have come due to injuries, including the first three games of his rookie season and his torn knee ligaments in the final eight games of the 2015 season. Five have come due to suspensions, first two in 2015 and then another three in 2015. Two have come due to rest, the team sitting him in the regular-season finales each of the past two years. Finally, the 19th came Sunday, with Bell not reporting for the purpose of preserving his body for 2019 free agency.
This is all to say that it’s nothing new for the Steelers. James Conner is just another in a line of starters. Isaac Redman started the 2013 season opener. Felix Jones started the next two games. Then it was DeAngelo Williams opening the season in 2015 and 2016. Stevan Ridley started the season finale a year ago. You can even include Fitzgerald Toussaint as a postseason starter in 2015.
Only once in those 20-plus starts (including the postseason) did any running back do what Conner did on Sunday, putting up 192 yards. Williams in a November game of 2015 against the Oakland Raiders had a 225-yard day, with 170 on the ground and 55 in the air, though he did not score.
Still, the Cleveland Browns did not come away from Sunday’s game feeling as though they had just seen a replica of Bell. Said Jabrill Peppers (who has admittedly only played against him once), “Conner’s a good back, and he can do a lot of things, but he didn’t offer everything Le’Veon offers as far as explosive ability”.
Ramon Foster acknowledged that the difference between Bell and Conner is that while the latter is “a capable back” who’s “had those reps in practice”, Bell “is flawless at it. So it’s not as if Conner can’t do it, it’s just that he hasn’t had the experience and might not be as consistently smooth”.
There has been a surprising amount of criticism for Conner among Steelers fans after the game, which I can’t help but wonder would have been lost in the ether had the team managed to win. Instead, his fumble, which helped bring the Browns to within a score in the fourth quarter, looms large. Many still can’t let go of Toussaint’s fumble three years ago. Or Rashard Mendenhall’s eight years ago.
Conner literally had more touches in his first start on Sunday than he had in all of his rookie season. He is learning to play against NFL defenses as he goes along. He did average 4.4 yards per carry and scored twice—should have been three times—in his first start.