Pittsburgh Steelers ease Big Ben’s burden, ride James Conner in blowout of Falcons
Hours after an NFL Media report stated that absent franchise RB Le’Veon Bell doesn’t want to be traded, his replacement, James Conner, delivered a performance that could compel the Pittsburgh Steelers to work the phones harder in an effort to move the disgruntled star.
From the opening drive of the Steelers’ must-have 41-17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, when Conner tallied 72 of 78 total yards and seven of eight touches, including a one-yard leaping touchdown, he was Pittsburgh’s rock.
Sure, the Steelers defense — which entered Sunday ranked 30th in yards and 26th in scoring — was mostly excellent, especially T.J. Watt, who had three of the team’s six sacks, including a late strip-sack that resulted in Pittsburgh’s final score. Keith Butler’s unit limiting an Atlanta offense that scored a combined 104 points in its past three games to 17 is certainly impressive, as was a special-teams effort that produced a blocked punt and strong work from their own punter, Jordan Berry.
The Ben Roethlisberger-to-Antonio Brown “WIFI” connection also went from spotty in the first half to strong after intermission, when they teamed up on 9- and 47-yard touchdowns, and Brown (6-101-2) eclipsed 100 yards for the first time this season.
Still, it was Conner consistently moving the chains for a Steelers offense that went from 2-of-12 on third downs in the Week 4 loss vs. Baltimore to 9-of-12 conversions (75 percent). He piled up 110 rushing yards on 21 carries (5.2 YPC), plus another 75 yards on four catches, as the beast easing Big Ben’s burden after Roethlisberger’s especially lousy performance Sunday night against the Ravens and puzzling lack of chemistry with Brown.
After attempting 186 passes through four weeks (46.5 per game), Roethlisberger was 17-of-26 for 235 yards, three TDs and an interception, which came in the red zone on a brutal decision late in the first half. And after Conner managed only nine and eight rushes, respectively, in Pittsburgh’s past two losses, tallying only 2.1 yards per carry, his __ touches were the second-most of his career.
Did Steelers OC Randy Fichtner, after vowing to involve Conner heavily like he did in the sophomore back’s Week 1 breakout, find the right formula? With Pittsburgh now back to 2-2-1, with its first home win in the bank, it feels that way. Granted, the Steelers won’t see an injury-ravaged Falcons ‘D’ every week, but with Cincinnati and Cleveland defenses up in the next two weeks and struggling a bit to stop the run of late, Conner is coming on at the right time — even if Bell might not agree.