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Tim Benz: Steelers’ James Conner leads ‘Feats of Strength’

November 29, 2018

The Steelers are working on a short week. Carolina visits Heinz Field on Thursday. So we’ll post “Feats of Strength” and “Airing of Grievances” by Monday morning in the wake of the team’s 23-16 victory Sunday in Baltimore.

Good news! It was hard to trim down the former. And it was tough to fill out the latter.

Eh, who am I kidding? We can always fill out a list of grievances.

Regardless, that was a huge victory in a place where it isn’t easy to win twice in a row. And the Steelers have done that in back-to-back seasons.

•••

Conner crosses one off

Last week I posted a story stating running back James Conner needed to do three more things before truly rendering absent starter Le’Veon Bell obsolete.

• Do well against the Ravens. Since the start of 2015, Bell has averaged 132 yards from scrimmage against Baltimore. He also has seven touchdowns.

• Get through a full season healthy. Bell did that the last two years despite touching the ball 400 times each season.

• Do well in the playoffs, as Bell has in three of his four postseason contests.

Conner is one-for-one so far. After averaging 2.1 yards per carry against Baltimore earlier this season, he was a beast Sunday, recording 163 yards of total offense (107 rushing, 56 receiving).

“Each game is different. You learn something new about yourself every game in this league,” Conner said.

I’m not sure what we learned about Conner that we hadn’t seen already in 2018, aside from the fact he put his skills on display against one of the few teams that had contained him.

It’s nothing new to see Conner on this list. Like Bell in 2016, Conner has eclipsed 1,000 yards from scrimmage in an eight-game span. They are the only Steelers in history to do so.

•••

Third downs

While Conner was the biggest individual difference from Game 1 against the Ravens to Game 2, the biggest collective difference was third downs.

In September, the Steelers failed on 10 of 12 third-down opportunities offensively. They also allowed Baltimore to make 8 of 17.

The script was completely flipped Sunday. The Steelers were successful on 10 of 16 tries. The Ravens only converted 4 of 12 attempts.

“I thought that first drive of the second half when we were able to convert some third downs really set the stage to combat that element of the matchup,” coach Mike Tomlin said.

The Steelers converted three third-down opportunities on that drive. It resulted in a touchdown and more than eight minutes of possession time.

•••

Dobbs did it

I admit to being someone who disagreed with the release of Landry Jones and the decision to keep quarterback Josh Dobbs as Ben Roethlisberger’s primary backup.

But in his first chance to prove Tomlin and Kevin Colbert made the right call, Dobbs came through.

Roethlisberger had to leave the game for a play with 12 minutes, 39 seconds left in the fourth quarter after a hard tackle from Za’Darius Smith. It came on a snap where the Steelers were facing a second-and-20 from the 5-yard line.

Dobbs responded by drilling a 22-yard strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster.

″(Darrius Heyward-Bey) looked right at me and said ‘Yo! Get your helmet. Get some throws,’” Dobbs said to KDKA-TV after the game. “We had a long TV timeout. So I had time to get my throws in, get some snaps and get ready to go.”

Roethlisberger came back on the next snap and took the team down the field for a field goal.

•••

Hilton’s hits

Mike Hilton had four tackles. Two resulted in a loss. And he had a pass breakup in the end zone.

Two of those big plays came in the red zone.

On Baltimore’s second drive, Hilton broke up a pass intended for Mark Andrews on first-and-goal. Hilton went up to challenge the ball from Joe Flacco. Hilton won despite being 7 inches shorter than the intended target.

With 5:20 left in the first half, Hilton dropped Lamar Jackson on a run for a loss of a yard. It was a third-and-2 from the 4-yard line. That forced Baltimore to settle for a field goal.

•••

The offensive line

The blockers were fantastic for a fourth straight game. The Steelers attempted 48 passes. Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked until the last one. And he probably could’ve tossed that one away, but he was making sure the clock continued to run.

The linemen also frequently opened gaping holes for Conner.

All five linemen were excellent. But David DeCastro stood out in the first half, creating space for Conner on a few occasions. And Alejandro Villanueva kept Terrell Suggs virtually silent when they were matched up. Baltimore’s formerly fearsome linebacker had no sacks and just two tackles.

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