James Conner ready for first start; David DeCastro says 'no hard feelings' with Le'Veon Bell

Bell's agent: 'The franchise tag does not work' (1:23)

Le'Veon Bell's agent, Adisa Bakari, declines to say when his client will report to the Steelers and explains why the NFL's franchise tag does not work. (1:23)

PITTSBURGH -- James Conner feels at ease as he replaces Le'Veon Bell in the Steelers' season opener at Cleveland on Sunday.

"No pressure on me," said the second-year tailback after Thursday's practice. "There are a lot of people waiting to see how my performance is going to be. As long as we win, I'm cool."

The Steelers are moving past the anger phase of Bell's extended absence, with guard David DeCastro extending an olive branch, saying that the team likes Bell and there are "no hard feelings."

On Wednesday, several players ripped Bell, who is refusing to sign his $14.5 million tender and will miss games to preserve his long-term health, and praised Conner heading into his first NFL start.

Conner, who got minimal work as a rookie with 144 rushing yards on 32 carries, said his goal in football has always been the same: make plays.

"[People] are not in my shoes. They might think it's pressure, but to me it's just football and doing my job," Conner said. "We've been here 8-to-5. It's just my job. The outside world thinks it's pressure, but it's just football. It's always been that way."

Conner impressed his teammates in the preseason after he lost weight and improved his pass-catching and blocking.

Cornerback Mike Hilton said teammates followed Conner's inspirational story as a cancer survivor while at Pitt, but they know he is making his name as an NFL player.

"Everybody knows his personal story. We feel like that still drives him to this day," Hilton said. "It gives people an opportunity to understand what he's going through, what brings him happiness -- and that's being on that field."

Coach Mike Tomlin has tried to keep the focus on the field, telling reporters Thursday that he won't speculate on Bell's intentions and hasn't communicated with his agent, Adisa Bakari.

Appearing on SiriusXM on Wednesday, Bakari openly asked what the Steelers' plans for Bell are, perhaps concerned about a heavy workload and the increased chance for injury before he reaches 2019 free agency.

When co-host Brady Quinn responded to Bakari's question that, if he were the Steelers coach, he would run Bell as much as possible in his final year with the team, Bakari replied that Quinn could "read between the lines" on the Steelers' intentions.

"We're not riding the wave," Tomlin said about the Bell saga. "[The game] is where our focus is. So nothing has changed from my perspective or our perspective based on what has transpired in the last number of days. Zero."

That's just fine with Conner, who has seen plenty of young tailbacks emerge as playmakers early in their careers.

"There are a lot of young, talented guys who are making noise," Conner said. "I feel like I'm talented too."

Turns out the Steelers' offensive line has incentive to showcase that talent with physical play up front. That's why it has "a little something to prove," DeCastro said. In five games without Bell in 2015 and 2016, DeAngelo Williams rushed for nearly 500 yards and four touchdowns.

"Le'Veon's not here, so we have to show we can do it without him," DeCastro said. "If we don't do well against Cleveland, all these questions come up. ... That's why you have to do well, to eliminate those questions."