The spotlight might not be as bright as it once was for starting running back James Conner.
After rushing for 135 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 21-21 tie against the Cleveland Browns in the season opener Sept. 9, Conner has gained a combined 78 yards and one score on 23 attempts over the team’s past two games.
With 213 yards, Conner still ranks seventh in the NFL in rushing, but he has reaffirmed what many suspected: he is no Le’Veon Bell, the versatile running back who had 1,291 rushing yards, 655 receiving yards and 11 total touchdowns last season but is embroiled in a financial standoff with the Steelers.
“Bell is a guy you can’t really replace,” Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “I feel like Conner has done a pretty good job. But I think not only could Bell get the ball in the backfield and run it, it’s just his ability to catch a little dunk pass and take it 20, take it 30 yards. That was something that I felt I is something that they’re maybe missing a little bit. But Conner has done a really good job. He’s a tough runner, hard, north-south guy. So we’ll definitely have to be alert for him also.”
The Ravens won’t have to worry about Bell, who is continuing to keep his distance from Pittsburgh in a protracted dispute over a long-term, lucrative contract. So for now, Humphrey and his defensive teammates will be tasked with confining Conner, a second-year pro out of the University of Pittsburgh, and turning the Steelers offense into a one-dimensional unit. The 6-foot-1, 233-pound Conner is as tall as Bell and eight pounds heavier, which he uses to his advantage, according to nose tackle Michael Pierce.
“He’s more of a downhill, right now kind of guy,” Pierce said. “So you definitely have to be on your keys early. Just knowing Le’Veon, he’s more bounce-around, and you have to stay assignment-strong on every second of the play. But those downhill runs hit quick, and those could be just as effective if not more. So you’ve just got to stay sharp on your assignments.”
Coach John Harbaugh noted Pittsburgh’s rushing strategy is the same despite the change in the starting running back’s identity.
“They really don’t change the scheme,” he said. “It’s the same scheme. It’s the same offensive line — big, strong guys. They grab hold of you and don’t let you get away. That’s kind of what they do. I think they have a couple good backs in there obviously, doing a great job. Conner, from Pitt right there, is capable of breaking tackles and those kinds of things and really is a good ‘make you miss’ guy, and he has some size.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who has grown weary of almost daily questions about Bell’s status, expressed his satisfaction with Conner’s play thus far.
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“He’s done a heck of a job, but not that any of us are surprised by,” he said. “He’s had a heck of an offseason and preseason and training camp, and we expect our second-year guys to take a significant step. They’ve been a lap around the track, they’ve been a part of the program and understand how it goes.”