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Gorman: Bryant, Conner make most of their Steelers debuts

Kevin Gorman
| Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017, 9:15 p.m.
Steelers running back James Conner looks to stiff-arm the  Falcons' Kemal Ishmael in the fourth quarter Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017, at Heinz Field. Connor rushed for a game-high 98 yards.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back James Conner looks to stiff-arm the Falcons' Kemal Ishmael in the fourth quarter Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017, at Heinz Field. Connor rushed for a game-high 98 yards.
Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant makes a catch in front of the Falcons' C.J. Goodwin in the second quarter Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant makes a catch in front of the Falcons' C.J. Goodwin in the second quarter Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 at Heinz Field.

It is incumbent upon to me to issue a reminder that the Steelers' 17-13 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at Heinz Field was only a preseason game.

Perhaps that will make it easier to review the long-awaited return of Martavis Bryant and the much-anticipated debut of James Conner.

To be kind, they had their moments but didn't make anyone forget about Antonio Brown or Le'Veon Bell.

“We just wanted to go out there and have fun and do what guys do, and that's play football, enjoy the game we love playing,” Bryant said. “We didn't want to add pressure to ourselves.”

Of course, this is the preseason. The Steelers know what they have in Bryant, who was catching passes from rookie quarterback Joshua Dobbs, not Ben Roethlisberger, and didn't have Brown opposite him.

But after a yearlong suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, Bryant was finally back in the starting lineup for the first time after 19 months in exile.

The Steelers went to him immediately, with Dobbs throwing a pass in the right flat for a 3-yard loss.

Bryant's next touch didn't go much better. He took an end-around off left tackle but fumbled out of bounds for a 1-yard loss. Two plays later, however, he caught a late-arriving pass down the right sideline for a 23-yard gain to the Atlanta 24.

“I was glad to play with my brothers and in front of the fans — the best fans in the world — and I'm just happy to be back out here,” Bryant said. “Everything can't be touchdown-touchdown-touchdown. You've got to keep working and learn from things. We're going to look at lots of film, see what went wrong and get better for it.”

Afterward, Conner was singing the same tune. The third-round pick from Pitt overcame three drops to finish with a game-high 98 rushing yards on 20 carries and one catch for 3 yards.

Where Bryant's return was brief, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he “wanted to get to know” Conner and told the rookie running back he would get as much as he could handle. It would be behind a starting offensive line missing Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and left guard Ramon Foster in the first half and a patchwork line in the second half.

Conner ran for a 3-yard gain on his first NFL touch, making his battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma seem like a lifetime ago instead of just 14 months removed from chemotherapy.

“Man, just awesome. At Heinz Field, so I was right at home,” Conner said. “My first carry in a Steelers uniform was something special.”

Conner was dropped for a 6-yard loss on second-and-10 at the Atlanta 24. Two plays later, however, he ran for an 11-yard gain to set up Chris Boswell's 42-yard field goal.

But it went backward from there. On the Steelers' next possession, Dobbs rolled right on third-and-4 at the Steelers 47 and flipped a pass to Conner. But Conner, too intent on turning up field, took his eyes off the ball and dropped the pass. On the next series, Conner would drop another pass on third-and-2 at the 49.

“It's nice to finish with running the ball hard,” Conner said, “but it's not acceptable for those passes I was dropping.”

What inspired Conner was the encouragement of teammates, who watched him go from playing for the Panthers to the Steelers.

“When taking the tunnel and walking to the field, it's like I've been doing it for so long, so it's comfortable,” Conner said. “It's with a different group of guys, but those guys embraced me.

“All of the veterans on this team, with me dropping the ball, came up to me and said, ‘Keep your head up.' It's a really special group of guys the Pittsburgh Steelers have.”

Conner took advantage of Bell's holdout in protest of his franchise-tag tender in the second half. He rushed for 85 yards on 15 carries, including runs of 17 and 19 yards to set up Bart Houston's 6-yard scoring pass to Justin Hunter for the win.

“I thought he represented himself well, particularly from a conditioning standpoint,” Tomlin said. “You can't underscore that element of it. I know as a professional athlete, he's generally in shape, but he hasn't played a lot of football. To be able to execute the large number of snaps that he did is encouraging.”

So was the sight of Bryant and Conner in Steelers uniforms, especially with both promising that we have yet to see their best.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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