James Conner takes over Heinz Field, dominates Browns again

PITTSBURGH -- The spin move to get loose. The stiff-arm in the end zone. The "Con-ner! Con-ner!" chants from the Heinz Field crowd.

James Conner is no longer a fill-in, but is a major catalyst for the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2018 season.

He can play. He has left little doubt.

Conner's monstrous second half helped seal the Steelers' 33-18 win over the Cleveland Browns and strengthen their position in the AFC North. Over the span of two drives in the third and fourth quarters, Conner gashed the Browns for 95 total yards and a score. The Steelers were reeling after several mental mistakes before Conner spun his way to a 30-yard gain to start a third-quarter scoring drive.

“I’m just running hard,” Conner said when asked if he’s getting stronger by the week after compiling 525 yards over a three-game stretch.

Conner started the game with 36 yards on 12 carries but finished with an explosive 146 yards on 24 carries along with five receptions for 66 yards. That gives Conner a startling 404 total yards in two games against the Browns.

That will do.

Steelers players kept pumping up Conner publicly over the last two months, and it was not an empty proposition. They feel strongly about their running back, with or without Le'Veon Bell. He's ready for AFC North football, and so is an offensive line that has been stellar the last three weeks.

“He wants to be that guy,” guard Ramon Foster said of Conner. “He plays with a passion that’s out of this world.”

But the cheers for Conner and the offense sounded more like boos early on after the Steelers failed to record a first down in the first 17 minutes. Completions to the sideline to Antonio Brown and Justin Hunter loosened things up.

The avalanche of big plays followed. The Ben Roethlisberger-Brown improv show commenced, with the quarterback escaping the rush and throwing on the run to a sprinting Brown for the 43-yard score. Minutes later, cornerback Joe Haden went high for the interception on a Baker Mayfield deep ball.

The Steelers have been brilliant all year in the two-minute offense to end the first half. A 16-play, 87-yard scoring drive spanning seven-plus minutes marked the Steelers' fourth touchdown of the season in the final two minutes before halftime. Roethlisberger capped the game with a 1-yard score to Brown on a screen pass with 8 seconds left.

The Steelers gave the Browns too much life in the third quarter with four mental mistakes in a span of minutes. Pittsburgh had a 10-point lead and the ball with eight minutes left in the third, but the Browns recovered a free kick that the Steelers let drop. Returner Ryan Switzer admitted he and Brown thought the play was dead when the ball hit the ground. Fullback Roosevelt Nix appeared to call for the ball but didn’t secure it. “Just a miscommunication,” said Switzer, who stressed he has to know the rules.

The Browns recovered, then marched downfield with the help of three Steelers penalties for roughing the passer, holding and pass interference. Mayfield's touchdown pass to Antonio Callaway cut the Steelers' lead to 12.

On the Steelers' next offensive play, though, Conner spun off a Browns lineman, broke a tackle and pointed to the Heinz Field turf after his 30-yard game, calling it "my house."

Turns out he was just getting started.

He sealed the game with a 22-yard score and multiple "Let's go!" yells from the sideline. That was Conner’s seventh rush of 20-plus yards, four more than Bell recorded all of last season.

“We knew the splash plays were on the way,” Conner said.

Conner has 922 scrimmage yards, the second-most in franchise history through the first seven games of a season, trailing Bell’s 938 in 2014. That number pairs well with an improving defense that hasn’t allowed more than 21 points in the last three weeks.

The Steelers had two sacks but should have had many more. They were hitting Mayfield early and often. The Browns had 85 second-half yards, most of which came on a last-minute drive in garbage time. The defense looks more organized after several miscommunications and missed tackles in the first month.

“We decided to put all the BS aside,” said linebacker Bud Dupree, who got held in the end zone to draw a safety.