With Le’Veon Bell away, Steeler running backs get extra work
LATROBE, Pa. (AP) — Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner knows what to expect.
Two-time All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell is skipping training camp at St. Vincent College for the second straight season because of a contract dispute. Bell’s absence last summer meant Conner saw additional snaps in camp as a rookie.
This time, he’s raised expectations. He’s at the top of the depth chart, at least until Bell arrives.
“Le’Veon here or not, I’m focused and trying to prove to myself that I’m in shape and I can handle playing,” Conner said. “I’m focused no matter who’s here or who’s not here.”
Bell chose to not sign his franchise tender until the eve of the 2017 season. He is expected to follow the same path this time. That’s with Conner, who intends to prove he can handle the heavier workload.
“I want to show it all,” Conner said. “Every time I get in, I’m going to make every rep count.”
Conner, a former star at the University of Pittsburgh, showed flashes as a rookie, sporadically filling in to give Bell a breather. The Steelers’ 2017 third-round pick appeared in 14 games, rushing 32 times for 144 yards, an average of 4.5 yards per carry, before a knee injury ended his season.
A leaner, trimmer Conner initially turned heads during spring workouts and that effort has carried into training camp.
Conner set the tone with a touchdown on the first competitive snap of training camp. Ben Roethlisberger delivered a quick slant to the slot where Conner hauled in the touchdown ahead of former first-round pick Artie Burns.
On Monday, Conner broke off a long touchdown run during a drill that featured live tackling. He displayed burst through the hole and into the secondary where he ran away from safety Nat Berhe en route to the end zone.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin expects that kind of development from Conner in his second season.
“We’ve been around the track for a lap,” Tomlin said. “He understands what’s going on in terms of the environment of professional football. He should utilize that experience and knowledge to produce a better, more consistent performance.”
Rookie Jaylen Samuels still seeks that kind of consistency. He is taking advantage of the extra snaps to see where he fits in.
Samuels, a fifth-round pick, was a do-everything standout at North Carolina State. The 6-foot, 225-pounder stepped in at running back, fullback, wide receiver and even tight end. He ranks second in school history in total touchdowns, fourth in touchdown catches and sixth in scoring runs.
The Steelers list Samuels as a running back, but he’s also being used in the slot or split out as a receiver.
“I don’t want to be held to just one skill,” Samuels said. “I want to be able to showcase a lot of different skills. Whenever I go against different mismatches, I want it to be tough on them.”
Samuels knows he needs to improve on his pass blocking.
“I didn’t really do it in college as much,” Samuels said. “I did a lot in practice, but not really game-time situations because I was either in the route or I was getting the ball.”
Tomlin made Samuels take five consecutive, unsuccessful turns during the team’s “backs on backers” drill in which a running back or tight end attempts to pick up a blitzing linebacker.
“I feel like pass blocking is probably the most that’s lacking in my game right now,” Samuels said. “That’s the one thing I need to work on.”
Samuels will have his chance for additional development at training camp with Bell away.
“It’s definitely an opportunity to display my skills, and earn some respect from the players and coaches,” Samuels said. “I’m excited for the opportunity that’s ahead of me.”