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James Conner Return Provides Tough Test for Steelers

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Steelers RB James Conner
Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner at Heinz Field on Sept. 19, 2019. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — Former players returning to face their old club is a part of life in the National Football League, but there’s something a little bit different about James Conner, the ex-Pittsburgh Steelers running back coming back to Acrisure Stadium this Sunday with the Arizona Cardinals.

Conner is a Western Pennsylvania native, who grew up in Erie, Pa., and played at McDowell High School. He matriculated to the University of Pittsburgh, where he was not only a star running back for the Panthers, he became the kind of heart-and-soul, blue collar leader that Pittsburghers love.

That was even before he announced that in 2016 that he had been diagnosed with cancer. Conner returned to Pitt practices with a chemotherapy port in his chest, helped the Panthers to epic win over Penn State and No. 2 Clemson in 2016.

James Conner

Pitt running back James Conner at Heinz Field. on Oct. 8, 2016. — David Hague / Pittsburgh Sports Now

Then he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers and became a hometown hero all over again. Conner replaced Le’Veon Bell in his second season in 2018 and was a revelation, earning a Pro Bowl nod with nearly 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns.

But the business of football intervened. Conner struggled to stay on the field routinely, and the Steelers are not typically keen on giving big second contracts to part-time running backs. They let him go to free agency and drafted Najee Harris in 2021.

Conner doesn’t seem to hold a grudge. After all, he ended up in a great landing spot in Arizona. He signed a prove-it deal in 2021, then went out and proved it, rushing for 752 yards and 15 touchdowns while making just six starts and earning his second Pro Bowl selection. He followed that up with a longer-term deal in the desert. If there’s any hard feelings about the way his time in Pittsburgh ended, Conner doesn’t seem to be showing it on the eve of his return this Sunday.

“I’m just gonna come to play,” Conner said. “I’m just gonna be me, truthfully. It’s been three years now. If it was like the following year or whatnot, maybe there would have been more to it. But I’ve been a Cardinal for a while now. I’m just gonna play my game, and try to put my best on the field, like I always. …

“I’ve got a lot of respect for the people in the city and love for them taking a chance on me. Taking an opportunity. When I was coming out, I was dealing with all types of injuries, cancer and everything and the Steelers still selected me. I’m forever grateful for that.”

Conner said he expects to have about 15 to 20 family members in the stands and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he’s cheered when his name is called on Sunday.

Steelers RB James Conner

Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner signs an autograph at training camp at St. Vincent College on July 26, 2019. — Alan Saunders / Steelers Now

Which puts some of the Steelers defenders in an interesting position. Players like Cam Hayward and T.J. Watt were right there as Conner became the player that he is today, helping him along the way, and now are faced with trying to shut him down.

“I look forward to measuring myself up against other guys that have been teammates of mine,” Heyward said. “You have a different relationship on the field, but at the end of the day, it’s all about competition and if you can’t compete against your friends, you’re in the wrong league.”

“I’ve just always been proud of James. Always a warrior. Battled a lot. Everybody likes to make the story about him battling cancer. But, man, he gets through the line of scrimmage. He’s a strong runner. He doesn’t go away from contact. He brings the energy to that group. There’s not a better guy that you’d want in your locker room than a guy that brings that type of workman-line, lunch-pail attitude for the entire group.”

For the Steelers coaching staff, the challenge is less personal, but not less vital. The Steelers have been improving against the run, but have had difficulties with the type of powerful, hard runner that Conner is.

A.J. Dillon of the Green Bay Packers had nine carries for 70 yards in Pittsburgh earlier this month. Derrick Henry had 75 yards and a touchdown the previous week. The Steelers have had 91 missed tackles on defense this season, according to Pro Football Focus. They only had 109 in all of 2022.

“We can’t allow James Conner to do what James does,” Tomlin said. “Know and love and got a lot of respect for James. He’s a legitimate tough guy. A big time competitor. Expecting nothing but his absolute best coming back into Pittsburgh, because I know him. But aside from his will and intangible things, man, his skill set. When he gets into the secondary, he’s tough to deal with. He’s a combative runner. He has a nose for the line to gain and the goal line. He has his entire career. He has always been a touchdown scorer.”

It’s been three years since Conner walked the halls of UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, but when the Steelers coaches put on the tape, they’ve seen a very familiar sight.

“When I watch him, he’s still a lot of the same guy,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “He is a bruising runner. He will run through tackles. He gets to the second level. If he finds a little guy, the little guy better watch out. And so I really like James. We know what kind of football guy he was when he was here. And so our guys are going to have their work cut out for them this week getting him on the ground. The thing we talk about is multiple hats to make sure we get him and wrap him. You’re not going to shoulder tackle him. You’re not going to push him down. You’d better tackle, wrap and have multiple people there.”

In many ways, this Sunday’s matchup between Conner and the Steelers defense will be a proving ground. Conner has the chance to prove the Steelers were wrong to move on from him when they did. The Steelers have a chance to prove that their recent improvements in rushing defense can stick against a bigger, stronger foe.

“We’ll wait for after the game for all the hugs,” Conner said.