Healthy James Conner makes most of Steelers OTAs
Recovery from knee surgery requires incremental steps on and off the football field. It is no different for Steelers running back James Conner.
Returning from an MCL injury for the second time in three years, Conner recently concluded the team's three-week organized team activities without incident, which, given his recent history, is a victory in itself.
It was at this juncture a year ago that Conner, a third-round draft pick in 2017, was unable to participate, the culprit being a balky hamstring he tweaked on the first day of rookie minicamp. Conner missed the voluntary spring practices and the mandatory minicamp that followed.
That's what make his inclusion at every workout this spring all the more satisfying.
“It's helpful,” Conner said after practice last week. “It's helping me to play fast. It's valuable time right now, and I'm trying to take advantage.”
Health is the biggest concern, of course, with Conner, who is two years cancer free after his fight with Hodgkin's lymphoma. He also missed nearly an entire season at Pitt with an MCL injury.
This spring, with his knee healthy, Conner is trying to make up for lost time.
With Le'Veon Bell skipping OTAs for a second year in a row because he is not under contract, Conner got a chance to run behind the first-team offensive line that includes three Pro Bowl players from last season.
“I'm starting to understand a little bit more,” Conner said. “I'm still learning the offense, still growing and still trying to prove myself every day.”
His work on the practice field caught the attention of another Pro Bowl player: his quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger attended the first offseason workout, then was absent for all but the final two. When he returned, Roethlisberger noticed an improvement in Conner.
“I think he's looking really well right now,” Roethlisberger said. “I like what he's doing. He took those rookie hiccups last year and has really gotten a lot better. It's shorts and short sleeves and no pads, but I'm excited to get to camp with him.
“He's one I'm excited about.”
Conner was appreciative of Roethlisberger's comments when they were relayed to him.
“For sure. I want to prove it to myself, first and foremost, then get the respect of my teammates,” he said. “I have a lot to prove. Training camp is a great opportunity for me.”
In his first camp with the Steelers, Conner was unable to benefit from Bell's absence. On the first day of padded practices, he suffered a sprained AC joint in his shoulder, the injury keeping him out until the second preseason game.
But when Conner took the field, he flashed the talent that made him the 2014 ACC Player of the Year while at Pitt. He ripped off a series of long runs and rushed for 98 yards in a preseason win over the Atlanta Falcons.
Conner appeared in 14 games as a rookie and contributed as a backup to Bell and on special teams. He had 144 yards rushing on 32 carries, a healthy 4.5 average. But the MCL tear, coming late in the December loss to the New England Patriots, put Conner on injured reserve for the remainder of the season.
Asked to describe the lessons he learned last year, Conner said, “being accountable, really everything. Protection in the pass game, being in shape, a lot of things. It's Year 2 now, so I should be more comfortable.”
Veteran running back Stevan Ridley, signed to a contract in December after Conner's injury, was brought back by the Steelers, who also drafted N.C. State's Jaylen Samuels in the fifth round. Those moves were done to provide competition for Conner more than to a contingency in case this season is Bell's last with the Steelers.
With a year of experience and a chance to work with the first team this spring, Conner appears up for the challenge.
“When you know what you're doing and the spots you're supposed to be in and who've you've got, it allows you to play faster instead of sitting back and wondering where to go,” he said. “When you know what you're doing, it allows you to play to your best.”