Tim Benz: Steelers’ James Conner is the same RB you’ve always known
When it comes to James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin would prefer you believe that the running back you are watching in Black and Gold is the same running back that you saw in Blue and Gold.
Impactful. Aggressive. Balanced. Confident. Good after contact.
“Man, that guy ran hard at Pitt,” Tomlin said. “I assume he ran hard in high school at Erie. That’s one of his calling cards.”
Yup. The James Conner we observe at Heinz Field on Sundays is like the one we saw at Heinz Field on Saturdays.
You’ll get to see him again Sunday afternoon when the Steelers play Cleveland for the second time this year.
Conner is leaner than he was during his college days. Better in the passing game. A more sturdy blocker, too. Still powerful. But that power flows through compact strength as opposed to angry bulk. And he’s doing it against better competition.
So Tomlin is right. The Conner we are watching at present looks similar to the one we’ve enjoyed watching since his scholastic days. However, Tomlin is glossing over the route that Conner took to get here.
While the polished product you see currently is emblematic of the raw specimen that came out of college, some significant molding has occurred.
“I am just trying to stick to the course,” Conner said . ”(I’m) trying to continue to evolve in the passing game and also in the running game. Just pass protection and catching out of the backfield, I think I am improving in that.”
One of his offensive linemen, guard Ramon Foster, offered up a specific area where Conner has improved.
“There were a couple of times last year where he ran out of bounds,” Foster said. “And coach kinda said something to him. But now he’s fully involved in AFC North football.”
Conner had only 32 carries last year. He averaged 4.5 yards. Many of them seemed to go outside off-tackle.
Yes, Conner was forced out of bounds on a few of them. So maybe that’s what Foster means. Not so much a tiptoe over the sideline. But a failure to bust the run up the gut from the hand-off.
Even Tomlin allows the reality that there was a building process to Conner’s NFL game. But he wouldn’t directly bite on Foster’s critique when I relayed the quote to him Tuesday.
“We expect all our second-year players to be dramatically better,” Tomlin said. “JuJu (Smith-Schuster) is better. T.J. Watt is better. He’s better. We’ve been singing that song since I’ve been standing at this podium. It’s reasonable to expect all those guys to be better in all areas between Year 1 and Year 2. And he’s no different.”
Easier said than done.
Whether it’s getting hurt too often as a rookie, or needing to reshape his body for the rigors of the NFL, or not getting enough action when healthy in 2017, Conner needed to play catch-up.
Plus, there was that fumble in Cleveland during the 2018 opener.
With the Steelers nursing a 21-7 lead against the Browns in the fourth quarter, Conner got stripped. The Browns quickly turned the mistake into a touchdown.
The next thing we knew, Conner and his teammates were heading home with only a 21-21 tie to show for their efforts against a team that couldn’t win a single game the year before.
Between the fumble and the end of the game, Conner had just 13 yards on six carries. He looked tentative, wrapping his arms around the ball and blindly plowing into the line and falling down, just to wind the clock.
From there, he’d average a piddly 2.1 yards in losses against the Chiefs and Ravens. However, in the last two games alone, Conner has amassed 314 yards from scrimmage. And he hasn’t lost a fumble since that miscue.
“I have been a running back my whole life, so I don’t think about it too much,” Conner said of his turnover. “You can’t let it happen. But that’s not me.”
No. Fumbling is not usually a part of Conner’s resume. Increasingly, though, 100-yard games are. Another one of those performances without a turnover Sunday in the rematch against the Browns could go a long way towards underscoring Tomlin’s point.
This is the same James Conner you’ve always known.
Fully understanding why that statement is true is just a little more complex than how the coach may want to describe it.