Everyone wants to know when Le’Veon Bell will show up. And hey, it’s a pretty important question. But internally, the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t seem to care quite as much.
Even without him, they know they have a talented back waiting to seize the opportunity.
The team’s confidence in James Conner has never been as high as it is right now. No, he isn’t nearly as talented as Bell, the best back in football, but anyone who mentions Conner talks about the growth and improvement he’s made from Year One to Year Two.
Mike Tomlin’s press conference summed it up best. He told one reporter he felt more confident in the RB situation this year compared to 2017.
That’s all Tomlin needed to say.
Conner certainly looks like a different back from his rookie campaign. He showed up a little bit leaner, and with a mullet, showing better bust through the hole and the ability to finish off long runs. One of the highlights of camp was a 55 yard touchdown run during a full-tackling session, bursting off right tackle and outracing the secondary to paydirt.
“All areas and he met the challenge,” Tomlin said when asked if Conner made the appropriate jump from first to second year.
But anyone who watched him in college knew Conner could run with the ball. The question was everything else. Pass protection, catching, mastering all the details to make him a back capable of doing anything, similar to Bell.
“I’ve watched James really grow in a lot of areas,” Ben Roethlisberger told 93.7 The Fan during his weekly radio show. “I’ve told him this, and it’s no secret. I’ve felt like whether he’s worked on it or not, his hands have gotten a lot better since last year. He’s catching a lot of passes and tough passes. As a receiver, he also gets to the spot he needs to get to right now. Fast. He gets there quick. So that’s beneficial to me for checkdown situations. When you empty him out, you make him run routes, he runs them fast and he catches the ball really well.”
Asked if the Steelers offense would function any differently with Conner on the field than Bell, limited schematically in any area, Tomlin’s answer was short, sweet, and to the point.
That wouldn’t have been the response a year ago.
Conner is unlikely to ever truly be the next Le’Veon Bell. But he’s shown the ability to be a starting runner in this league. Maybe that happens as soon as 2019.