“Conner Strong” has been a phrase associated with Steelers second-year running back James Conner ever since he was diagnosed with and ultimately defeated cancer as a collegiate football star for the University of Pittsburgh.
While Conner’s story of perseverance and courage has been inspirational, he’s been pretty adamant these days about wanting to be known not just as a cancer survivor, but as a really good running back in the National Football League.
On Sunday, mere days after it was reported that holdout running back Le’Veon Bell may return in-time to be ready for the post-bye portion of the 2018 regular season, Conner did his best impression of No. 26 and took one step closer to changing the focus of the story from his medical triumphs to his football triumphs.
In an impressive 41-17 victory over the Falcons at Heinz Field, Conner was the main focus of Pittsburgh’s offense, tallying a combined 185 yards from scrimmage, including 110 rushing and 75 receiving.
On the Steelers’ first offensive series, an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, Conner was responsible for 72 yards—including a short pass that he turned into a 29-yard catch-and-run to the Atlanta 38, followed immediately by a 30-yard scamper down to the eight.
Three plays later, Conner did his best Walter Payton impression, by leaping over the Falcons’ defense for a one-yard score.
On Pittsburgh’s next possession, Conner contributed 30 yards to 97-yard drive that ended when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster on a pretty 18-yard touchdown pass to make it 13-0.
I’ll spare you the rest of the play-by-play, but Conner did add another touchdown to give him two on the day to go along with his impressive yardage total.
Conner looked fast. Conner looked quick. Conner looked athletic. And, most importantly, Conner looked strong, as he picked up many of his yards on second-effort runs.
Sunday’s game for Conner was everything his performance against the Browns’ in Week 1 offered, save for a critical fumble that turned the tide and led to a comeback by the opponent.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence Conner looked as good as he has since that Week 1 game in Cleveland, because that was the last time the Steelers actually controlled the majority of a football game and dictated the action to their opponent.
The Steelers’ three games after Cleveland and before Atlanta were mostly disjointed, chaotic affairs. And in two of those games—home losses to the Chiefs and Ravens—Pittsburgh quickly found itself down by scores of 21-0 and 14-0, respectively.
It’s hard to stick to your game-plan and establish your running-attack under such circumstances, and Conner’s numbers looked rather pedestrian.
The Steelers got up by two scores on Atlanta early and never trailed. They got to impose their will on offense—and even defense—and this afforded Randy Fichtner and Roethlisberger the opportunity to utilize all facets of their playbook, which made for a much more efficient showing.
Roethlisberger passed just 29 times and averaged 8.6 yards per attempt. Furthermore, he enjoyed superb protection all afternoon and wasn’t sacked once.
The Steelers’ offense looked like it had so many times in the recent past when it flowed through Bell.
Only Bell wasn’t on the field (or in the stadium) on Sunday. James Conner was, and James Conner was strong.