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Steelers' James Conner starts fast, still has to prove durability

PITTSBURGH -- James Conner didn't consider sitting out the season. Not for a second.

For the Pittsburgh Steelers running back and cancer survivor, the drive to rebound from a disappointing 2019 season and play out the final year of his rookie contract outweighed any concerns of playing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And now, through six games, Conner's offseason motivation is translating to his best start since 2018. Entering Sunday's AFC North battle against the Baltimore Ravens (1 p.m. ET, CBS), Conner is averaging 4.75 yards per carry with 563 yards from scrimmage.

In 2018, when he earned a Pro Bowl nod while filling in for Le'Veon Bell, Conner was averaging 4.40 yards per carry through six games and had 710 yards from scrimmage.

"His game right now is at an all-time high," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He's picking up blitzes. He's catching the ball out of the backfield when we need him to, and he's getting the tough yards when we need that as well. The thing I keep telling him is to just have fun. When he has fun, he plays great football."

Conner is stoic talking about his passion for the game in interviews, but for Conner, playing football is fun. Everything about it is fun -- playing in games on Sunday, practicing during the week and bulking up with weight room sessions in the offseason.

"It's great to see how much he cares about the game of football," veteran lineman David DeCastro said. "He's really passionate about it, and it's nice having guys like that, young guys that are really focused. … As older guys, you get older and you kind of look back on those days. That focus and that tenacity is great, and James always brings that."

Conner was injured briefly this season, tweaking his ankle in the season opener against the New York Giants to finish with six carries for nine yards. Benny Snell took over for Conner and put up 113 yards, prompting speculation Snell and Conner could split running back duties, despite coach Mike Tomlin's constant assertion that Conner was his "bell-cow" back.

But since then, Conner has rushed for more than 100 yards in three of five games. In the win against the Tennessee Titans last Sunday, Conner had 82 rushing yards along with 29 receiving yards. He's also scored touchdowns in four of the past five games.

"I always try to run hard," Conner said. "I'm just trying to play physical, play fast. Just play free. That's when I'm my best. When I just can know the game plan well, and just try to execute and just play football. There's just big games week after week, so I'm just gonna play big."

Helped by Roethlisberger's return, Conner's strong start has the run game looking much better than it did a season ago when defenses loaded up to slow Conner because of a lack of respect for a passing game anchored by backups Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges.

Through six games, the Steelers rank 11th in rushing yards per game with an average of 129.7 yards -- a drastic improvement from 90.4 rushing yards per game last season, 29th in the league.

"When James is healthy, he's really a good back," offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. "He is all three downs capable. He can excel in short yardage and go on. He is a powerful runner. When he is basically healthy, he's protecting the ball. He's finding creases. He's moving piles. We've seen his ability to catch out of the backfield, and I value the ability to protect our quarterback."

Starting strong is great, but for Conner, the biggest challenge lies ahead. Through his first three years, Conner has never played a complete 16-game season. This time a year ago, he was in the midst of putting together his best game of the season against Miami: 23 carries, 145 yards and a touchdown. But in the final minutes of that game, Conner sustained a shoulder injury. He appeared in three more games the rest of the season and had only 19 more carries.

Conner and his coaches are aware that the biggest concern around him as a player is durability, and he's taken steps to preserve his body as much as possible.

"I really love where James is at right now because he's made himself available," Fichtner said. "What he's put in with his offseason coach was tremendous because he's been in shape since the day he got here. He's developed that and gets stronger. He's obviously being more durable, and he's on the field more. It hasn't warranted potentially having to take him out in certain situations, but we like to use other backs to allow him to have some rest."

Conner's teammates recognize he's taking steps to be as healthy as possible this season, and they understand the frustration he felt last season as he dealt with the string of injuries, including issues with his shoulder, ankle and knee.

"I know everyone wants everyone to be Superman, but it doesn't work out like that sometimes," center Maurkice Pouncey said. "Man, he's obviously having about a bounce-back year, and he's looking really impressive."