PITTSBURGH -- Mike Tomlin needed one word to describe why he feels better about Le'Veon Bell's absence this year compared to last.
"James," the Steelers coach said Tuesday.
That would be James Conner, whose impressive preseason might just earn him serious playing time Sunday at Cleveland regardless of what happens with Bell.
Bell has missed the past two training camps due to rocky franchise tag negotiations and skipped Monday's practice, prompting general manager Kevin Colbert to issue a statement that the team was "disappointed." Upon arrival, he must take a physical and sign his $14.5 million franchise tender before taking the practice field. Center and team captain Maurkice Pouncey told ESPN he expects Bell to be in uniform Wednesday.
But the team has been effusive in its praise of Conner, who rushed for 100 yards on 19 carries with 7 catches for 61 yards in the preseason. He's taken the first-team reps since training camp opened in late July.
Linebacker Vince Williams said Conner has "turned the page" with play resembling a savvy veteran.
When asked directly about Bell, guard Ramon Foster pivoted to Conner. "I trust James," he said. "He's ready."
"[He's gone from] being a rookie that missed a lot of time due to soft tissue injuries and lack of general readiness, to a guy that's done the things that we've outlined several minutes in here," Tomlin said.
Last year, Conner rushed for 144 yards on 32 carries before a Week 15 knee injury ended his season.
Bell's 47 total yards in last year's opener against Cleveland was a career low, while Conner logged 11 yards on four carries. Veteran Stevan Ridley and rookie Jaylen Samuels also are available for action at tailback.
Tomlin said he hasn't thought about whether Bell will report Wednesday or about a cutoff day for Bell's Week 1 availability. He also hasn't spoken to Bell this week, he said.
"When he gets here, that's when we will start quantifying all Le'Veon Bell-related things, his overall readiness, the amount of time we have between his arrival and the next competition, et cetera, et cetera," Tomlin said. "We will weigh all of those things at the appropriate time. Now, we're just singularly focused on the guys that are here working and have been here working and kind of building a plan around variables that we know. That's the appropriate thing."