James Conner Begins Audition For Lead Back Role

Today is September 9, 2018. The day Le’Veon Bell has been waiting for. The Pittsburgh Steelers are playing a meaningful game for the first time since January, and Bell won’t be there for it. So that’s one less thing we’ll have to watch for today as we go through the game.

But we can start by filling the void he leaves behind him, focusing on James Conner, who will make his first career start today in place of the All-Pro. The second-year back out of Pitt had a great preseason in which he got the opportunity to display the full range of his skill set from running to catching and pass protection, the latter of which was admittedly a work in progress but improved over time.

Every member of the organization that has spoken on the subject, to a man, has expressed an immense amount of trust in Conner to be able to come in and play at a high level, judging by what they have seen from him throughout the offseason, beginning with rehabbing from a torn MCL.

When the Steelers drafted him, they envisioned him as a quality complementary number two running back, but they also probably knew in their minds that they also could be in the market for a new starting player. By that point, Bell had already been tagged for the first time and it wasn’t clear the two sides would come close to an agreement.

Now, he’s still here—well, not physically—but Conner is going to get the opportunity to demonstrate whether or not he is capable of being that full-time, every-down back that they might feel comfortable with heading into the 2019 season.

His first test is the Cleveland Browns, against whom he would have surely started in the season finale had he not suffered that knee injury. That injury did give Stevan Ridley an opportunity to come in and prove himself, and now he figures to serve as Conner’s number two today.

It will be interesting to see how the Steelers intend to utilize their stable of running backs. Are they going to try to allow Conner to do as much work as he possibly can? Will they give Ridley a series or two? Will Jaylen Samuels be given series, or just used as a specialty player—or not at all?

Whatever the case may be, Ridley and Samuels are the supplements to Conner today. I think the comments from Head Coach Mike Tomlin and everybody else on board have made that pretty clear. Today is in many ways his day. And he’s ready for it.

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