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James Conner Not Taking No. 1 Spot for Granted

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PITTSBURGH — Of all of the players that entered the Steelers 2018 season lacking certainty in their roles — and there were a few — none had a higher level of uncertainty with a lower level of control over the process than running back James Conner.

After an injury-halted rookie season, Conner wanted to put his head down and focus on his craft in order to secure his spot as an NFL regular. But above him on the depth chart, the specter of Le’Veon Bell loomed large. The Steelers’ All-Pro back spent most of 2018 keeping everyone, from the fans to Conner, guessing as to whether or not he would ever sign his contract and report to the team.

While Bell mulled his options, Conner took advantage of the opportunity, starting in 12 games for the Steelers and racking up 973 yards on 215 carries — a 4.5 yards per carry average that equaled his rookie season and exceeded Bell’s 2017 average.

This offseason, the uncertainty is all but gone from Conner’s role on the team. Bell has moved on to the New York Jets through free agency, and second-year back Jaylen Samuels and rookie Benny Snell seem penciled solidly behind Conner in the Steelers’ running back pecking order. Conner will serve as the leader of the Steelers youthful group of running backs, something new running backs coach Eddie Faulkner does not seem concerned about.

He’s essentially a lock to enter the season as the top back on the Steelers’ depth chart, and so this offseason should probably be a lot less nerve-wracking for the third-year pro.

Just don’t tell him that. In his two years with the Steelers, Conner has seen just how quickly things can change in the NFL, so he’s not taking anything for granted.

“Coach T (Mike Tomlin) told us a while ago, he’s trying to replace us every year,” Conner said. “He didn’t mean that in a bad way. He didn’t mean that we’re not doing our job. It’s just there’s always a young buck up and coming. You’ve seen the talent that Jaylen’s got. You’ve seen the talent that Benny has. Trey Edmunds, I rock with him. All those guys are talented running backs.”

Of course, there’s also the factor that the uncertainty that surrounded Conner’s 2018 offseason fueled a pretty successful year for him, so replicating that might be pretty useful. It’s a pattern that Conner has successfully mined when coming to Pitt as an under-heralded recruit and working his way into All-ACC form and then again after coming back from a knee injury and a cancer diagnosis.

“Nothing has ever been given to me, so I don’t expect it at this point in my life, either,” he said.

Conner has been working on his strength and conditioning, and hopes to be able to go harder in addition to the added year of experience.

“I just feel like I’m getting better,” he said. “The more experience I get, the better I feel I can play. This year, year three, I’m a lot more comfortable with things. I feel like I can play a lot faster with that experience now.”

So take Conner’s 4.5 yards per carry from last season, and what happens when he’s stronger, and playing faster? That’s the kind of uncertainty the Steelers can deal with that the running back position.

Steelers

Steelers to Host ex-Vikings OT Aviante Collins for Visit

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The Steelers will host free agent tackle Aviante Collins for a visit, according to the NFL transactions page for Thursday.

Collins, 27, spent the last four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings after joining the team as an undrafted free agent out of TCU in 2017.

Collins played in three games in 2017 and two in 2019 for the Vikings, and spent all of the 2020 season on the practice squad, except for a one-week elevation in Week 11, in which he did not play.

The 6-foot-4, 292-pound tackle its a free agent after the Vikings decided to allow his practice squad contract to expire at the end of the season.

The Steelers have several free agents at the tackle position, including longtime starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, 2019 starting right tackle Matt Feiler and 2020 starting right tackle Zach Banner, who are unrestricted free agents, and backup Jerald Hawkins, who is a restricted free agent.

The Steelers have Chukwuma Okorafor under contract and Anthony Coyle, Jarron Jones, John Leglue and Brandon Walton signed to futures contract.

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Steelers, Zach Banner Donate to Tree of Life Synagogue

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Offensive lineman Zach Banner and the Pittsburgh Steelers have pledged a donation to the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill as part of the Steelers 2020 Social Justice Grant program.

The congregation was attacked during a mass shooting own Oct. 27, 2018 that killed 11 people and wounded six others, the deadliest attack ever on a Jewish community in the United States.

The shooting stuck with Banner, who was a rookie on the team at the time. After Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson made an anti-semitic post on social media, Banner responded with a video post.

“We need to understand that Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate and similar hardships and hard times,” Banner said in the video. “I want to preach to the Black and brown community that we need to uplift them and put our arms around them just as much when we talk about Black Lives Matter and talk about elevating ourselves.”

The video led to Banner becoming something of a fan favorite to the Jewish community.

“Mr. Banner spoke up when others didn’t and we appreciate that,” Barb Feige, executive director of Tree of Life, said to Steelers.com “The fact that he mentioned Tree of Life and the horrific shooting that happened there and how much it impacted him was very meaningful. We are very aware the shooting had an impact beyond our congregation, our Jewish community. The ripple effect was felt. Everybody felt something about it. For Mr. Banner to articulate that, and join our fight against anti-Semitism, was very, very special, very meaningful.”

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Report: Steelers to Interview Los Angeles Chargers QB Coach Pep Hamilton

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The Steelers have requested to interview Los Angeles Chargers quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton for their vacant offensive coordinator position, according to a report by Josina Anderson.

Hamilton, 46, just finished his first season as quarterbacks coach with the Chargers, where he helped develop rookie quarterback Justin Hebert, who was named the PFWA NFL Rookie of the Year.

Hamilton has previously been an offensive coordinator at the NFL level with the Indianapolis Colts from 2013-15, where he led a resurgence around quarterback Andrew Luck.

Hamilton was the head coach of the DC Defenders of the XFL in 2020, the assistant head coach and passing game coordinator for Michigan in 2017-18 and was assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach of the Cleveland Browns in 2016. He has also been an NFL assistant with the New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears.

Hamilton is the third person confirmed to have interviewed for the position, along with former Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders head coach Hue Jackson and Steelers quarterbacks coach Matt Canada, who is expected to earn the position.

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