The Steelers aren’t crying and moaning about Le’Veon Bell’s holdout. Instead, they think James Conner has the talent to be a star in his absence.
Le’Veon Bell’s holdout continues to be the story dominating the Steelers’ preparations to take on the Browns this weekend. Fortunately, it’s not something any Pittsburgh players are willing to use as an excuse. In fact, some members of the team think James Conner has the ability to step up and become a household name while Bell’s out of the lineup.
Center Maurkice Pouncey is one of the biggest believers in his young running back. He believes Conner would have been a first round pick if not for his previous bout with cancer. The former Pro Bowler correctly points out that stars come out of nowhere in the NFL every season.
Time will tell if Conner can capitalize on Bell’s holdout to that degree. The former Pitt Panther has looked excellent during the preseason. He clearly isn’t as dynamic as Bell is with the ball in his hands, but he does a good job of picking up quality yards on every play.
Conner doesn’t have any of the flash that makes Bell great, but he possesses much of the substance required to be a productive NFL running back. Don’t expect the Steelers’ offense to drop off a cliff if Bell doesn’t make it back anytime soon.
That doesn’t mean that Pouncey is entirely correct. His sentiment that Conner can be an above average NFL back is right on. The idea that he’s going to provide anything close to what Bell’s provided this offense in the past is off base. Pouncey and the rest of his teammates need to understand just how rare a back of Bell’s talent is. He’s not someone they’re going to replace with a single player.
Instead, Mike Tomlin will need increase contributions from multiple players to cope with Bell’s absence. Conner can be a part of the solution, but he won’t be all of it. Ironically, the group most affected by Bell’s absence (or departure) should be the offensive line. Pouncey’s unit will have a lot more pressure to open up holes for Conner than they ever did with Bell making big plays out of nowhere.
In truth, it may be the Pittsburgh passing game that feels Bell’s absence the most. Conner is an adequate pass catcher, but Bell is elite. Ben Roethlisberger is going to have to redistribute his targets with a greater emphasis on his wide receivers. Fortunately, the likes of Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster make that an appealing proposition.
In the end, Conner might become a star for the Steelers in time, but he’s not in Bell’s tier as a star running back. It’s nice for Pouncey to put on a brave face, but he needs to be more realistic with his expectations for Conner.