James Conner missed three weeks with an ankle sprain last season. Like most players, he returned to the lineup despite being less than 100%. Given how critical a game it was, the Week 17 finale was a must win against the Cincinnati Bengals, he did all he could to give the Steelers a chance to make the playoffs.
Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner admitted as such in his media scrum earlier this week, responding to a question about Conner’s durability.
“I thought when he did come back, he was strong and fought through because he was still hurt,” he told reporters via the team website. “And to me, I know he wants to win and I know that he wants to be there for his teammates. That was really pleasing to see.”
Conner proved to be an asset too, not a liability. He carried the ball 14 times for 64 yards, an average of over 4.5 yards per carry while tacking on another three receptions for 30 additional yards. Jaylen Samuels carried the ball only two times, though reeled in seven catches, in the Steelers’ 16-13 game.
Through the first two seasons of his NFL career, Conner has been unable to shake the injury bug. Despite limited time as a rookie, he tore his MCL against the Patriots, missing the rest of the year. In 2018, he sprained an ankle against the Los Angeles Chargers. But in Ficthner’s mind, that doesn’t make Conner an injury concern.
“Unfortunately what I think happened last year from an injury standpoint, if I’m correct, it was kinda freaky. It was a freak ankle. Other than that, I thought his durability was excellent.”
Fichtner’s memory is indeed correct. Conner was awkwardly tackled late in the 4th quarter against the Chargers, causing him to miss the next three games.
Those are injuries that can happen to anyone, especially a running back, and is hard to knock Conner for. When he’s been in the lineup, Conner has shown the ability to play a high volume of snaps and do anything the scheme asks him to do. The fact he returned to the lineup not being 100% is a testament to his toughness.
Still, it seems likely the team will use more of a committee approach this year. If not for keeping Conner healthy, then to take advantage of the talent that exists in the backfield.