It was a great start for James Conner—but a not so great finish. The second-year running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers was given the opportunity to be the team’s lead back today with Le’Veon Bell choosing his future employer’s pay over his current teammates and staying away, and for most of the day, it certainly didn’t look like the offense missed him.
When the dust settled, Conner toted the ball 31 times for 135 yards and two touchdowns, adding another 57 yards through the air on five receptions to give him 192 yards from scrimmage on the day. He also had a two-yard rushing touchdown that was negated by penalty.
But then, during the second half, he was hit in the backfield from behind by Myles Garrett, who proved to be a game-wrecker on the day for the Cleveland Browns. The 2017 first-overall pick popped the ball loose, which was recovered by Jabrill Peppers and returned to the one-yard line.
It was a 21-7 score at the time, a quick touchdown making it 21-14, but the Steelers played it conservatively on their next possessions. Conner was visibly concerned about protecting the football, as he should be, having both hands all over it.
While his fumble did directly help contribute to the Steelers’ eventually ending their season opener in a tie with the Browns, though, the truth is that he did far more to help than hurt. He did, after all, score 14 of their 21 points on the day and very nearly had all of them, had Maurkice Pouncey not been flagged for a hold on his second-and-two would-be score. Pittsburgh would score on the next play—and then the next play after when that too was negated by penalty.
No, the fumble, while unfortunate, should not rain on Conner’s day in his debut as a starter. He put forth great effort and was used extensively, virtually the same workload as Bell would normally receive, producing nearly 200 yards from scrimmage on 37 touches.
And from what little I was able to discern from his work in pass protection, he did his job. I was able to observe him picking up at least two blitzes, including on the 22-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown.
It was a very encouraging debut for Conner, who will be the lead runner at least until Bell decides to report, in which he looked quite elusive at times. His first three quarters, at least, were highly productive affairs.
There is perhaps concern about the rest of the game, however, as he became less effective. Was that due simply to the game circumstances, the team having a one- or two-possession lead for most of that time? Did he get fatigued? He never appeared to ask to be taken out of the game, but perhaps the coaches should make that decision for him to let him get spelled.