This past season gave Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner exactly what he wanted, but not at all in the manner in which he would have preferred to get it. The second-year man was given the opportunity to be a full-time starter, but the opportunity only presented itself because the team’s All-Pro starter at the position, Le’Veon Bell, elected to forego the season in preparation for the opportunity to reach unrestricted free agency fully healthy in 2019.
No matter how he got the job, he served that role all the same, and he did it well enough to earn the recognition of being a Por Bowler himself. In 13 total games (12 starts), he rushed for just a bit under 1000 yards with 12 rushing touchdowns. He also added nearly another 500 yards as a receiver with another touchdown.
“It’s what I have always asked for”, Conner recently told the Steelers’ website. “Not the situation it was. I didn’t ask for that. But the opportunity to be a starting NFL running back. I didn’t really feel any pressure because it was everything I was asking for. I didn’t look at it as pressure because it’s what I wanted. It was a great opportunity”.
A star running back at Pitt, he was given the opportunity to pursue his career in the same stadium, in the same city, when Pittsburgh used its compensatory selection in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft to bring him into the fold.
He played very sparingly in his rookie season in spite of the fact that he showed flashes here and there when given the opportunity to carry the ball, but when you give your starter over 400 touches, you are going to have a hard time finding playing time for others at the position.
This year, it was Conner getting those touches, and he ended up averaging over 23 touches per game, prorating to over 370 touches had he played a full 16 games. It would have probably been nearer to 400 if they had not reduced his workload late.
What he said is just what you want to hear, though. Conner didn’t feel immense pressure in spite of the fact that he was thrown into a starting job that he wasn’t expecting to have simply because that is exactly what he wanted to have all along. At least mentally, he was prepared for it.
And he started off well enough with a 135-yard rushing performance with 57 yards receiving and two touchdowns on the ground—though also with a costly fumble. He would record five 100-yard games on the season and caught passes for over 40 yards in six. And of course he averaged one score per game. That’s not bad for a backup.