Kevin Gorman: Steelers succumb to pressure, as turnovers spoil James Conner’s sparkling start
The pressure is always there, James Conner said, whether you’re feeling it or applying it.
When Le’Veon Bell was a no-show for the Pittsburgh Steelers the week of the season opener, Conner understood there would be pressure to perform to the standard of the All-Pro running back.
Yet Conner swore he had no nerves for his first NFL start. He was just focused on playing football and applying pressure on the Cleveland Browns on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium. For three quarters, Conner shined for the Steelers by rushing for 100-plus yards and two touchdowns.
But Conner didn’t feel the pressure, at least not until it was too late. It came from the backside, when Browns defensive end Myles Garrett popped the ball loose from Conner’s grasp and instantly changed the momentum of a game the Steelers were leading by two touchdowns.
“It’s football, part of the game,” Conner said. “Can’t let it happen anymore.”
The fumble was the pivotal play of the game, one that was recovered by safety Jabrill Peppers and returned to the Steelers 1-yard line. That set up Carlos Hyde’s touchdown run to cut it to 21-14 with 7 minutes, 32 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of what was looking like a walk by the lake.
Suddenly, the Steelers were in a game. That it ended in a 21-21 tie provided no consolation, especially with how the Steelers gave the game away.
The Browns were in it because of turnovers. Not just the one by Conner but five by Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers quarterback might as well have an ownership stake in the Browns, given his 11-2 record here. He has more victories at this stadium than any Browns starting quarterback since the NFL returned in 1999.
But the pressure got to the Steelers as Big Ben was pressured in the pocket and threw three picks in the first half. He also lost a pair of fumbles, one in the fourth quarter and another in overtime.
“You can’t win the game when you turn the ball over that many times,” Roethlisberger said, to which a reporter reminded him that the Steelers almost did anyway. Big Ben’s response? “We didn’t, though.”
That was the overriding theme of this game, as disappointing as a defeat. The Steelers were one of the best teams in the league the past two seasons, and the Browns its worst. Somehow, the Steelers allowed the Browns back into a game they had no business winning.
But they couldn’t hold a lead because they couldn’t hold onto the ball, and it wasn’t just because of the steady rainfall. The conditions were certainly less than optimal, but Conner is from Erie and Roethlisberger from Findlay and both have played football in worse weather.
Conner was making everyone forget about Bell, whose absence had become a distraction. The Steelers players were supportive of Bell and his contract demands during the offseason and preseason, up until it crept into their regular-season opener against an AFC North foe.
“I’m so tired of Le’Veon, so tired of it,” Steelers guard David DeCastro said. “Let’s just worry about the guys who are here. I love Le’Veon, but we’ve got to worry about the guys in here. It’s the only people that matter to me.”
Conner is easy to root for, given his All-American career at Pitt that saw him overcome a knee injury and an inspiring battle with cancer to become a third-round pick of the Steelers. The offensive line shifted their focus from their frustration with Bell to supporting Conner, so he naturally celebrated by hugging them after scoring his first career touchdown untouched on a 4-yard run in the second quarter.
While Roethlisberger was throwing picks, Conner was piling up yards. Not only did he score his first NFL touchdowns but made his first NFL catch and broke the century mark for the first time. In fact, by halftime, Conner had more yards against the Browns (46 rushing on eight carries and 32 receiving on three catches) than Bell did in the opener a year earlier (32 rushing on 10 carries and 15 receiving on three catches).
“It is what I expect,” Conner said. “It’s the mentality of our offense. We feel like we’re going to run the ball when we want to run the ball, so I know the mentality of those guys up front. I knew the lanes were going to be there. I knew today was going to be a good day on the ground, just not enough to win. I have confidence in myself and the guys in front of me blocking, so it’s what we expect to do.”
It’s a shame that Conner ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries and had five catches for 57 yards only to have his breakout game be overshadowed by a costly fumble and inability to control the clock.
“He’s a great running back,” Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said of Conner. “It’s unfortunate we couldn’t get critical first downs in the second half. That would have calmed everybody.”
Perhaps it would have calmed Roethlisberger most of all. Instead, he lost a fumble on a strip-sack by Garrett and spent the rest of the game under siege by the pressure and a ridiculous 12 penalties for 116 yards. Roethlisberger passed for 335 yards and a touchdown but was sacked by linebacker Genard Avery and fumbled into the hands of Joe Schobert to put the Browns in position for a shot at a winning field goal.
The Steelers went from applying the pressure to feeling it. By then, it was too late. You can’t win that way — and they didn’t, even if they didn’t lose, either.
If that’s something that happens in football, it’s something the Steelers can’t let happen anymore.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.