James Conner’s fumble in the fourth quarter of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season opener against the Cleveland Browns was a crucial turning point in a game that neither side seemed willing to win—and which ultimately neither did.
The second-year back making his first career start had already rushed for over 100 yards by that point on his way to a nearly 200-yards-from-scrimmage day, but on this particular play, he was chased down from behind by Myles Garrett, who popped the ball loose. The Browns recovered, returning it to the one and scoring on the next play to make it 21-14.
Head Coach Mike Tomlin was asked yesterday to comment on the play and how it colored his opinion of Conner’s overall performance. He would not take the bait, the reporter seemingly wanting to place from criticism on the back.
“I’m not overanalyzing that play”, he said in response. “It’s a play you’d like to have back, it’s a play he’d like to have back. It’s a play from a blocking standpoint you’d like to have back. They had a guy in the damn backfield chasing him. It’s just football”.
Tomlin was right to point out the blocking portion of the play, because left tackle Alejandro Villanueva did little to impede Garrett, which is what allowed the defensive end to chase the play down from behind. Villanueva attempted a chop with his inside arm and instantly found himself in chase mode.
“We’re not going to overanalyze it. We’re definitely not going to have an overreaction” to the fumble, Tomlin said, for a very simple reason.
“We don’t wait for things to happen to preach ball security. Since day zero of our offseason, I walk past our running backs during stretch and I say, ‘take care of the football, the rest is just learning. It’s going to be a good day if we do those things’. I say that every day. I probably say that to him every day he’s been here. So I’m not going to change now”.
Tomlin knows what happened and what can’t happen again. He trusts that Conners knows too. It’s not a conversation that needs to take place. They are both professionals and adults who understand the circumstances of what took place and what is necessary to prevent it from happening again.
Conner is certainly going to take something away from this. You could tell that by the way that he gripped the ball on his carries after the fumble. That’s not to say that he is never going to fumble the football again—it happens, such as Le’Veon Bell’s seven fumbles over his past 27 games—but it is the sort of thing that serves as a reminder, a reinforcement. Tomlin isn’t worried and neither am I, which is why I wrote after the game that it shouldn’t rain on his day.