Tim Benz: What Steelers’ James Conner must do to truly make Le’Veon Bell obsolete
James Conner’s explosion of popularity in Pittsburgh is easy to explain. The second-year Steelers running back is third in the NFL in rushing and fourth in yards from scrimmage.
He’s a great story. High school in Erie. College at Pitt. Cancer survivor. Hard worker. A quiet, humble underdog.
Perhaps, most importantly, he’s not Le’Veon Bell. Bell quickly has turned himself from a guy who is easy to root for into a guy who is almost impossible to support.
So, as Conner has enjoyed three straight games of 100 yards or more on the ground, every success he attains is being heightened by fans. That’s not just because of how good Conner is looking. The public is also drawing an equivalence between the running backs, and Bell is looking bad by comparison.
No wonder chants of “CON-ner, CON-ner” were raining down from the stands at Heinz Field during his 146-yard performance Sunday against the Browns.
Has Mike Tomlin ever heard the fans chanting Bell’s name?
“I’m sure they have,” the Steelers coach said Tuesday.
Eh. Maybe. But not like that.
“That was really special. I had to listen really close a couple of times just to make sure I was hearing it right,” Conner said. “I will never forget that. That was something really special for me.”
Certainly, Conner is sitting pretty in Western Pennsylvania these days. But he still needs to overcome a few hurdles before those who are willing to brush aside Bell can truly break out the brooms. Conner has a few things to check off his to-do list before we can all safely say that he has adequately made Bell obsolete.
Play a full season
Bell played all 16 games in 2014 before getting hurt in the finale. After an injury-riddled 2015 season, he played in all 12 meaningful ones after his 2016 suspension. And, in 2017, he missed only the meaningless game at the end of the year against Cleveland. All that despite averaging 371.6 touches per year over those three seasons.
Shine in the playoffs
Bell got injured early in the 2016 AFC title game in New England. But in the other three playoff games he has played, Bell averaged 165 yards from scrimmage.
Hurt the Ravens
Since the start of 2015, Bell has averaged 132 yards from scrimmage against Baltimore. He also has seven touchdowns.
Conner has a chance to accomplish that third task against his club’s longtime division rival Sunday in Maryland. He’s 0-1 in trying to do so. He had just 44 total yards when the Steelers lost the first matchup, 26-14, at Heinz Field on Sept. 30.
Conner wasn’t effective that day. He racked up just 2.1 yards per carry. There’s no shame in that. Baltimore yields only 3.9 yards per attempt. Houston is the only team in the AFC with a better mark at 3.2.
And Conner’s low output that day isn’t entirely on him. The Steelers largely stopped running the ball in the second half, even though they were facing only a slight 17-14 deficit going into the fourth quarter. Ben Roethlisberger handed Conner the ball only three times over the final 30 minutes, netting 5 yards.
The Steelers had gotten down 14-0 early in that game. They tied it up at 14-14 before halftime, largely by passing their way back into it. That seemed to get their approach out of rhythm against the Ravens.
And the players seem to be aware that a return to balance is important in the rematch.
“What got us back in the game was the throwing,” guard Ramon Foster said. “So, with that being said, it made sense to stick with it. We know, in the AFC North, we have to be a run team. So we need to be on top of it.”
That must occur Sunday. This team’s resurgence after a 1-2-1 start has been Conner’s doing as much as any other individual on the team. It’s Conner’s belief he must be efficient early to warrant more opportunities as the game moves along in Round 2.
“Starting fast. We had turnovers early and got behind,” Conner said. “We just have to control the ball. Run the ball a lot better. That’s the main thing I need to do. Establish a better relationship with (the offensive line) early.”
For Steelers fans who have become bitter toward Bell for his absence, it’s become fun to suggest Conner is making the world forget Bell is gone in the first place. A second empty game by Conner in about a month’s time against the team’s most important rival would be an instant reminder, though.
For Conner to truly put Bell on the back burner, he has to be as good against Baltimore as his predecessor was. Conner and his offensive line appear to be warming to the task. That will be the single biggest storyline to watch on Sunday.