PITTSBURGH — The fans inside Heinz Field weren’t the only ones chanting James Conner‘s name during Sunday’s 212-yard performance against the Cleveland Browns.

Apparently Ben Roethlisberger‘s son was, too.

“I texted (Conner) and I told him, ‘James, it must have been pretty cool to have (Heinz Field) chanting ‘Con-ner but you want to know something that’s even cooler — when I come home and play catch with my son and every time he catches it he’s you,'” Roethlisberger recalled on his weekly radio show Tuesday. “I said, ‘Thanks for being a good role model and please don’t ever stop understanding that everything you do you have a chance to be an amazing role model.'”

The Conner project is off to a roaring seven-game start, which doesn’t discount Le’Veon Bell’s brilliance on the field over five seasons. But it does raise questions about how the Steelers should handle the running back position when Bell returns.

One obvious question is, should the Steelers ride the hot hand?

If building an NFL team, a full-strength Bell over Conner is the logical pick. The Steelers would probably make that pick. Bell is an All-Pro with a versatile skill set not seen since the days of Marshall Faulk. His raw production — 128.9 total yards per game from 2013-17 — is unmatched for a five-year stretch.

But Bell’s two-month absence has complicated matters. Conner has 922 scrimmage yards, the second-most in franchise history through seven games — behind Bell’s 938 yards in 2014. His 367 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns the past three weeks are why it’s “not hard to figure out” why fans chanted Conner’s name, coach Mike Tomlin said.

Bell hasn’t touched an NFL practice field in nearly 10 months. And though Steelers players are intrigued by a killer two-back system, the offense has been a one-back, workhorse attack for as long as Bell has worn the black and gold.

Even DeAngelo Williams, who rushed for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns while Bell was suspended and injured in 2015, faded to the background when Bell returned to the lineup the next year.

And now Conner is successful while Bell watches. Although center Maurkice Pouncey is glad he’s not making the call on who starts, he knows what’s helped both have success.

The Steelers’ system.

“It ain’t just one person,” Pouncey said. “You have to have great players all the way around for everyone to be successful. That’s just how it is. Unless it’s a franchise quarterback … Any other position, that’s just how it is.”

So can Conner, with nine rushing scores through seven games, keep up his pace?

“Oh, hell yeah,” Pouncey said. “He’s so young, his body is recovering fast.”

How the Steelers play the Conner-Bell dynamic depends on how they view Conner’s production.

On the surface, Conner in 2018 is outplaying Bell in 2017.

Through seven games last season, Bell rushed for 684 yards on 173 carries (3.95 yards per carry) with four touchdowns, 33 receptions for 214 yards. Conner has 599 yards on 127 carries (4.7 average) with 31 catches for 323 yards during that same stretch.

Conner is tied for first in the NFL in 100-yard games (four), games with multiple rushing touchdowns (four) and rushes of 20-plus yards (seven), according to Steelers media relations. He’s also fourth in rushes for first downs with 30.



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There’s necessary context behind those numbers, though. Bell missed all of training camp last year and started slow as a result. During a historic 2016 campaign, Bell averaged 175 yards per game over nearly two months.

Then there’s one factor that shouldn’t be overlooked: The offensive line was invested in helping Conner go off.

Guard David DeCastro acknowledged the line was ready to prove it could produce without Bell, who drew the ire of several of his blockers when he didn’t show for the opener. Pouncey and guard Ramon Foster were among those who labeled Bell’s move selfish.

“Obviously we couldn’t talk about it, so let’s go out there and try to make Conner look as good as possible,” said DeCastro about the feeling among the position in Week 1. “Just for this team’s sake — the team wants to do well. We’re going to have to pick it up and help him do well. He’ll have a lot of pressure on him, too. It all revolves around the team and each other. That’w why football’s so unique.”

Conner and the line responded with three straight 100-yard games and one sack of Roethlisberger during a three-game winning streak.

Several players have stopped short when asked whether Conner should continue to start when Bell arrives. It’s the safer play to praise both players.

But something must give eventually, especially with Conner proving he responds to bigger workloads. Against Cleveland, Conner had 36 yards on his first 12 rushes before pumping out 110 yards on his next 12.

As it stands, it wouldn’t surprise to see Conner start at least one game when Bell returns, while easing the versatile weapon back.

“We want the best for Le’Veon,” Pouncey said. “Just because we said our opinion (in Week 1) means we hated Le’Veon. No, there’s no way it should be like that. We just want to be successful. It just goes to show if you have great players and with the offensive line and the receivers are blocking and the quarterback, other guys are getting double teamed and it just gives an opportunity for a running back like Conner to excel. Obviously you’ve seen that.”


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