PITTSBURGH – In an inconsistent season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have consistently praised James Conner. Several teammates publicly reveled in Conner’s 185-yard performance Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons in light of headlines swirling around Le’Veon Bell’s eventual arrival.
Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva referred to Conner as an “unbelievable human being” whom he’s proud to call a teammate.
But the Steelers will get a top-10 NFL player in their lineup soon enough, and he happens to play running back. Bell is an elite player regardless of what Conner does. Conner's showing that he can get hot with two big performances through five weeks only deepens the intrigue around the Steelers running back position for Week 8 against Cleveland, Bell’s targeted return game.
On the surface, there isn't much downside here. Bell can only help, and Conner can obviously play. But the offense is typically built for one workhorse, and if Conner starts in favor of Bell, an All-Pro will be sitting on the bench to collect $855,000 a week.
Villanueva understands the challenges but prefers to focus on the possibilities with two backs of differing styles.
"We’ve been working really hard to adjust to Conner’s style of running -- he’s very explosive, fast, hard-hitting,” Villanueva said. “Le’Veon is not the same. He’s more of a patient runner. That combo can be very effective. The preparation process that involves everybody else but those two guys is probably more important than their actions on the field. If they are able to understand what we’re doing, and everyone’s on the same page, it’s not going to matter who’s on the field.”
Villanueva doesn’t envy the coaches tasked with finding work for both players at the appropriate time, especially given Bell’s history as a workhorse.
Just remember DeAngelo Williams, who put up 467 rushing yards in five games to start the 2015 and 2016 seasons while Bell served suspensions, only to fade into the background upon Bell’s return.
"Le’Veon likes to stay on the field. I’m sure there will be [challenges],” Villanueva said. “It’s not up to me to decide that, and that’s a good thing.”
Conner has acquitted himself well as an improved blocker, better-than-advertised receiver out of the backfield and downhill runner. Apparently, he can deliver more punishment. Ben Roethlisberger told the media after the 41-17 win over the Falcons that he told Conner he should have “lowered the boom” more often instead of dancing.
But Conner needs to show more after averaging 3.0 yards per carry in Weeks 2-4, even if the Steelers abandoned the run at times during that stretch.
Plus, the thought of not using an All-Pro and arguably the best at his position seems silly. The Steelers might ease Bell back, but he’ll be on the field. He’ll be plenty motivated, too; he told ESPN last week that the Steelers will get “my best,” and he knows he’s “gotta show people” what he can do.
Navigating this lineup is a good problem for the Steelers, who have seen enough from Conner to believe that he can be the feature back in 2019 if Bell is signed to another team. With three consecutive AFC North games approaching, the Steelers will be handing the ball off.
The weather is changing. So is the lineup.
“It’s getting to the point of the season where we have to be a team that holds on to the ball and can run it consistently,” guard Ramon Foster said.