Steelers RB James Conner, backups ready to go in place of Le’Veon Bell |
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Joe Rutter
Steelers running back James Conner plays against the Titans Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018 at Heinz Field.

James Conner returned from a serious knee injury and cancer diagnosis to compile a 1,000-yard rushing season in his final year at Pitt.

After a year of limited activity in the NFL, Conner isn’t about to sweat his chance to replace Le’Veon Bell as the feature running back with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Conner will step into the void created by Bell’s extended absence from the Steelers when they open the season Sunday in Cleveland. With Bell missing another day of practice Wednesday, Conner is expected to start against the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium.

“I get the opportunity to play the game again,” Conner said. “I’m excited. Anytime I can play football, I don’t take it for granted.”

Conner learned that lesson at Pitt when he was limited to part of one game in his junior season because of an MCL tear. If that was enough to dampen his spirit, the diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma surely was.

But Conner persevered and rushed for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns before declaring for the NFL Draft with one year of college eligibility remaining.

In his first year with the Steelers, Conner was little-used, getting 32 carries while Bell led the NFL with 406 touches — 60 more than the second-most player in the league. A shoulder injury in December landed Conner on injured reserve, ending his rookie season after 14 games.

Now, he’s being asked to handle a full workload again, and the Steelers have prepared him accordingly. With Bell absent for offseason workouts and training camp, Conner got most of the first-team carries. He also led the Steelers with 100 yards rushing in the preseason.

“James is a year better than he was last year at this time,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “I think we’re all excited for what he can bring to this offense and to this team. We’ve got a lot of weapons. We’d like to have (Le’Veon) out there, but we’ve got guys that can make plays for us.”

Although Conner didn’t catch a pass in his rookie season, he had seven receptions for 61 yards in three preseason games. The Steelers also believe while Conner isn’t the same quality of blocker as Bell, he can get the job done.

“He’s put in a lot of work, truly,” said veteran running back Stevan Ridley, who primarily worked with the second team in training camp. “He’s in shape and showing he’s ready to play, coming out here every day and taking every play to the end zone, going the distance and being durable.

“In my time I’ve had with him, he’s been a pro. He’s been working hard, and I think he’s ready for the opportunity.”

Ridley was signed in December after Conner was placed on injured reserve, and he was brought back on a one-year contract perhaps as insurance in the event Bell’s absence extended into the season.

“We’ve been practicing and focusing on the guys that are here — that’s what we have to do,” Ridley said. “We can’t do anything besides that. We prep for the guys that are here and want to be here and work as a unit to get a ‘W’ on Sunday.”

Ridley rushed for 1,263 yards with the New England Patriots in 2012. His days as a feature back ended the next season, and he has played in three games combined over the past two years.

“However they want to use me, I’m ready to go,” Ridley said. “That’s as real as I can be. I don’t know how they are going to use me, what they are going to do, but I’m game for it.”

So is rookie fifth-round pick Jaylen Samuels, who served as a dual threat in college at N.C. State. His primary purpose was catching passes as an H-back.

Samuels received a team-high 28 carries in the preseason, and he also caught eight passes.

“I’m doing a lot of running back, but also whenever we have different packages for me, I’ll get split out wide,” Samuels said. “So whatever they have in the game plan, I’m just going by it.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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