As the drama of Le’Veon Bell’s contract staredown has played out around them, the outcome of that subplot has become increasingly irrelevant to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season.
The Steelers have James Conner to thank for that.
Conner, the second-year running back who has replaced Bell while the two-time Pro Bowl selection has been absent from the team all season while refusing to sign the franchise-player deal, has become one of the NFL’s best success stories, adding football exploits to his more important real-life success story of being a cancer survivor.
And while the Bell saga continues to play out in advance of next Tuesday’s deadline to join the Steelers if he wants to be eligible to play this season, it will be Conner who will be carrying the ball Thursday night for the Steelers when they host the Carolina Panthers in a compelling game between two playoff contenders.
The Steelers have won four straight games to improve to 5-2-1. That upswing has coincided with Conner’s emergence as a standout NFL runner. He’s had four straight 100-yard rushing games, giving him five such performances this season. And he shows no signs of tiring under what has become a heavy workload.
“I’m built for it,” Conner said after running for 107 yards and catching a touchdown pass in this past Sunday’s triumph at Baltimore.
Conner is on pace to run for 1,412 yards and 18 touchdowns this season. He’s on course to add 76 catches for 758 yards and two touchdowns.
Bell has been one of the NFL’s most productive running backs throughout his five-year Steelers tenure. But he’s never had a 1,400-yard rushing season, he’s never had more than nine rushing touchdowns in a season, and he has reached 700 receiving yards in a season only once.
Conner is doing all of that for a salary of $578,000 this season under the terms of his four-year rookie deal.
Bell was to make $14.544 million after being franchise-tagged by the Steelers. He has refused to sign that one-year contract after he and the Steelers were unable to agree to a long-term deal to Bell’s liking.
He must sign his contract and join the team by Tuesday to be eligible to play this season. The NFL’s trade deadline already has passed. So if Bell shows up, the Steelers would face the task of working him back into the offense while continuing to make certain that Conner gets his carries.
“I don’t want to take anything away from James,” Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said after the victory over the Ravens. “But the big boys up front are opening holes. And so it’s a collective effort. James is going above and beyond. I’m more pleased by what he’s doing in the passing game and from a blitz-pickup standpoint. That’s a little bit more unique than the rushing. We knew he could run the ball since he showed up at Pitt at 18 or 19.”
Conner’s college career at Pittsburgh was interrupted when he was diagnosed in 2015 with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. He underwent chemotherapy treatments and made a successful return to football, being selected by the Steelers in the third round of last year’s NFL draft.
Conner averaged 4.5 yards per carry last season as a rookie but, with Bell on hand as the focal point of the Steelers’ running game, had only 32 carries. He didn’t have a reception last season, making his rapid development as a receiver out the backfield perhaps the most remarkable development of this season’s production. But Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he expected all along that Conner would thrive as a pass-catcher.
“I’m not really impressed,” Roethlisberger said in Baltimore. “That’s what I expect. I never thought James had a problem catching the ball. If I say that I’m impressed, I feel like I’d be saying that I didn’t think he could catch the ball. James is a reliable receiver in our pass game, in our check-down game. He gets out. He’s where I expect him to be. And that’s huge. He’s not just running to a spot. He’s helping with his protection first, then he’s getting out. And a lot of his yards are coming on that check-down game.”
Roethlisberger said Sunday that this is “potentially” the best and most versatile offense he’s been a par of during his NFL tenure.
“I don’t want to say definitely yes because I don’t want to show disrespect to anybody I’ve played with in the past,” Roethlisberger said. “But those guys up front are pretty special. And like I said, it starts with them. And everyone can make plays.”
That very much includes the running back who has taken over for Bell, something that has become extremely clear in recent weeks.
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