James Conner is entering the final season of his rookie contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and thus could be coming to an end of his time playing in the city.
Conner spent four years at Pitt from 2013-16 and then was drafted by the Steelers in 2017 to start his pro career.
It’s likely that the Steelers will at least attempt to re-sign or extend Conner, but after drafting running backs in three consecutive drafts after him, they’re well stocked with Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland Jr. should Conner depart.
That makes the idea of Conner suiting up in a different home stadium for the first time since he played in high school a real possibility. But it’s not one that he’s focused on right now.
“It would be hard to put another helmet on just because of everything and what this city means to me,” Conner said on Adam Schefter’s podcast.
“I played my college ball in the city, got my life saved in it, became healthy. The city I got drafted to. I want to be able to say the city I brought a championship to. It would be really hard. I’m Pittsburgh through and through. But like I said, I’m big on my faith, so I’m always going to end up doing what I’m supposed to do and being where I’m supposed to be at with the Lord’s guidance and direction.”
Conner also said that his upcoming contract decision doesn’t put any additional pressure on him to perform this season.
“Every time I go out there and play, ever year, I just look forward to that opportunity,” he said. “You have to perform. At the end of the day, that’s all it’s all about. I have to perform every day that I’m there, whether it be a contract year, my second year, third year, at the end of the day, you have to perform. I want to perform more. I’ve had some injury things. But I truly believe that when I put a full season together, it’s something special. I’m concerned about it being my contract year.”
Conner played in 10 games and had just 116 carries in 2019 after missing some time with knee, shoulder and thigh injuries. He’s back to full health now, and working out with another Steelers player that missed time with injury in 2019: quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
“We’ve been at his place and throwing around. He’s looking good,” Conner said. “I don’t have no doubts, personally. I know his work ethic and his mindset and what he’s capable of and what he wants to do. That’s win and win it all.”
Highlights from Steelers Practice 10/30/20
Steelers linebacker TJ Watt leads the defense during their final practice before plating the divisional rival Ravens. Running back James Conner also works on his burst.
Footage courtesy Pittsburgh Steelers
Steelers ‘Next Man Up’ Mentality Paying Dividends in 2020
The Steelers are 6-0, and while the team has had relatively good health for the season, there have been key injuries that have struck at inopportune times. Most recently, the Steelers lost Devin Bush for the season with a torn ACL.
However, he has not been the only one. Mike Hilton has missed time with a shoulder injury, Diontae Johnson has been nicked up, and Derek Watt has missed multiple games with a hamstring injury. Yet, at all spots, the Steelers have yet to miss a beat.
These are not just minor injuries either. Bush is the glue in the middle of the defense. Johnson is the shifty receiver that makes team fear the Steelers quick passing game. Hilton is the best run defending slot cornerback in the NFL and expands the Steelers’ blitz packages. Even Watt is a fantastic special teamer. Yet, the Steelers continue to chug along like nothing is wrong.
Mike Tomlin talks about the “next man up” mentality every week when it comes to the health of his team. The Steelers work through replacing their injured guys and getting them the replacements up to speed quickly. Even still, this is a mentality that is much easier said than done. Raw talent is hard to replace, especially when these are inexperienced, young players that are stepping in for those key contributors.
However, as the Steelers have shown in the past two weeks, Bush’s injury thus far has yet to be felt. Robert Spillane, a former undrafted free agent out of Western Michigan, has stepped in well. Playing on base downs, Spillane’s physicality and football IQ have been key in his standout performance. He has even shown he has more athleticism than anticipated. His big hit on Derrick Henry on Sunday was just the icing on the cake for a strong two weeks for Spillane.
Ulysees Gilbert III stepped into the other part of Bush’s role, which is sub-packages. Gilbert is now working in that role, and while not tested all that much on Sunday, Gilbert looked rather solid. Most importantly, he has the same speed and rare athleticism for the position that Bush presents.
With Johnson banged up this year, Chase Claypool and James Washington have jumped in at random times to step up in a big way. When Johnson was hurt early in Week 5 against the Eagles, Claypool stepped in and was the unsung hero. Against Cleveland, both Claypool and Washington had a touchdown.
Cam Sutton played a tremendous game in the absence of Hilton against Tennessee. With a near interception and two pass deflections, it was undeniable that Sutton had a strong game. Working as both a slot corner and in his usual dimebacker role, Sutton’s football smarts were on display the entire game. He worked as a deep third safety, yet again as well.
Justin Layne came into the game in those dime package sets as well. With Steven Nelson kicking inside, it was Layne who was tasked with guarding the boundary. In fact, in his limited snaps, Layne held his own. On the final drive by the Titans, Layne was mostly tasked with covering A.J. Brown, and he shut him down. While not targeted, if Layne had been targeted, he would have been in an excellent position to make a play. It was simply clear that Layne’s length was disruptive and an issue.
As for Watt’s injury, the Steelers have used both Trey Edmunds, Jaylen Samuels, and even Henry Mondeaux to replace his production on offense. As lead blockers, both Edmunds and Mondeaux have cleared lanes for goal-line touchdowns. Samuels took over Watt’s wingback role and secured himself a jet sweep on Sunday. It is a position that has been filled by committee, but an effective one at that.
All of that is to say, the season has thrown rolling punches the Steelers way, but they have stayed resilient. All these young guys stepping into bigger roles have played at a high-level. That shows this team buys into the next man up mentality that Tomlin instills in the locker room. This is further proof of Tomlin’s leadership skills to sell this mentality to the locker and get them all to buy-in.
In addition, it is a credit to all the position coaches. They are coaching these guys up during the week to get them ready for the big stage, and so far all of them have come through in a big way. The biggest example of this is when David DeCastro was injured not once, but twice, and Kevin Dotson came into the game with no problems. The Steelers did not miss a beat with Dotson at the helm. Zach Banner tore his ACL and Chuks Okorafor has been fantastic in his absence. Offensive Line Coach Shaun Sarrett deserves a lot of praise to get these guys up to speed. The players are buying into the mentality.
All across the roster from the defense to the offense and even special teams, the Steelers’ backups have filled in well every time they have been asked to do so. That is rare for any NFL team to have in a given season. However, thanks to great leadership from Tomlin, high-level position coaching, and buy-in mentality from the players, the Steelers have overcome injuries with the next man up mentality.
Without the mentality, it is hard to see the Steelers being 6-0 right now. It is the gift that keeps on giving and going forward, it is hard to see it not paying dividends for a talented, but still somewhat young team down the stretch.
Highlights from Steelers Practice 10/29/20
Two of the Steelers deepest units turned up the heat during practice on Thursday, October 29, 2020.
The Steelers receivers and members of the secondary go head-to-head to prepare for matchups with their counterparts on the Ravens.
Footage courtesy Pittsburgh Steelers