Steelers Improve to 2-0 in 2017 Preseason in Thrilling 17-13 Win over Falcons @ Heinz Field

It wasn’t the prettiest performance for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who opened the Heinz Field portion of their 2017 preseason schedule against the NFC Champion Falcons Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., but in the end, they left with a 17-13 victory, thanks to special teams heroics and a second half shutout by the defense.

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Matt Ryan started at quarterback for Atlanta, and on his one and only offensive series, he led a 10-play, 91-yard drive that culminated in a five-yard touchdown run by Terron Ward to give the Falcons a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter.

  • On the drive, Ryan completed a very efficient four of six passes for 57 yards, as Atlanta averaged over nine yards a play and converted its only third down of the series.

Following Jordan Berry‘s second punt to open the game, veteran quarterback Matt Schaub replaced Ryan before quickly exiting with what appeared to be a hand injury. In his place, third-string quarterback Matt Simms directed the Falcons the rest of the drive, which ended with a 23-yard field goal by veteran kicker Matt Bryant and a 10-0 lead for the visitors.

Pittsburgh’s next drive resulted in its only points of the first half, as third-string quarterback Joshua Dobbs, starting in place of veteran Ben Roethlisberger and injured backup Landry Jones, led the offense on an eight-play, 54-yard drive that resulted in a 42-yard field goal by Chris Boswell that cut Atlanta’s lead to seven points.

The big play on the drive was a 23-yard hookup between Dobbs and receiver Martavis Bryant, who made his 2017 preseason debut after being reinstated by the NFL following a year-long suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

  • The Falcons reestablished their 10-point lead thanks to a second field goal by Bryant, this time from 26 yards away.

However, the Steelers special teams provided some sparks near the end of the first half.

After nearly blocking a punt on Atlanta’s penultimate drive of the second quarter, fullback and special teams ace Roosevelt Nix did one better by blocking a punt on the final play of the first half, as both teams headed to the locker room with the visitors ahead, 13-3.

Overall, it was a pretty bleak first half by the home team, as Atlanta racked up 259 total yards to Pittsburgh’s 76–including 211 vs. 58 through the air.

  • The Falcons also converted on five of nine third downs, while the Steelers were a paltry one of six in the same category.

The two teams exchanged punts on the first four possessions of the second half, but the Steelers soon closed to within three points on Atlanta’s third possession, thanks to a 64-yard punt return by reserve running back Trey Williams, whose only shot of making the squad may be on special teams.

Following an interception on an ill-advised decision by Dobbs, who was trying to shuffle a pass to tight end Jake McGee while being taken to the turf on a third and short play, second-year safety Jordan Dangerfield provided some heroics by picking off Simms on Atlanta’s very next play to help preserve a three-point deficit.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Falcons faced a third and long from their own six-yard line. As he was about to be taken to the end zone turf by a blitzing Mike Hilton, Simms unleashed a pass that appeared to land short of the line of scrimmage. However, instead of a safety, the officials ruled the play incomplete because Simms’ pass hit a Steelers player before fluttering innocently to the ground.

No problem, as fourth-string quarterback Bart Houston directed the offense on a seven-play, 53-yard drive that resulted in a six-yard touchdown to receiver Justin Hunter, a free-agent acquisition in the offseason, who had turned some heads in the early stages of training camp.

Trey Williams

Trey Williams’ punt return helped brak the game against the Falcons. Photo Credit: Behind the Steelcurtain

The final crucial play of the game occurred with 2:14 remaining when a pass from Falcons’ fourth-stringer
Alek Torgeson bounded off the hands of his intended receiver and into the waiting arms of Jordan Dangerfield, who recorded his second interception of the day and all but wrapped up Pittsburgh’s second preseason victory.

In addition to Dangerfield and Williams, other stars of the game included reserve outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo, who recorded two sacks; and feel-good story, James Conner, as the rookie third round pick out of the University of Pittsburgh returned to his college home and carried the football 20 times for 98 yards.

As for the rookie Joshua Dobbs, his day was rather uneventful, as he completed 10 of 19 passes for just 70 yards, no touchdowns and the one interception.

Next up for the Steelers is a tilt against the Colts, as they close out the home portion of their preseason schedule next Saturday night at Heinz Field.

 

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Steelers 2017 Training Camp: 4 Question Pittsburgh Must Answer “Yes” to Bag Lombardi Number 7

As the Pittsburgh Steelers assemble for their 52nd training camp at St. Vincents in Latrobe, the franchise gathers with an unusual urgency. Everyone knows why. While smarting for yet another AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, Steelers signal caller Ben Roethlisberger uttered the dreaded “R” word last January.

  • The elephant in the room has been unmasked.

Super Bowl windows are notoriously hard to pry open and are wont to slam shut without warning. In the modern NFL, having a franchise quarterback forms a necessary, yet insufficient element to bringing home a Lombardi.

  • A quarterback can’t do it alone, even if his last name is Marnio, Elway, Brady and yes Roethlisberger.

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have known this and made their personnel choices accordingly since the Steelers rebuild began in earnest after 2012. The franchise returned to the playoffs in 2014, got a playoff win in 2015, and knocked on heaven’s door in 2016 only to be turned away.

Here are 4 Steelers 2017 Training Camp Questions whose answers will determine whether  Pittsburgh can bring home Lombardi Number 7 in 2017.

Beny Roethlisberger, Beny Roethlisberger St. Vincents, Steelers 2017 training camp

Can Ben Roethlisberger help Steelers bag Lombardi Number 7? Time will tell. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

1. Can Burns, Davis and Hargrave Avoid the Dreaded Sophomore Slump?

My, how times have changed. When decline of the Steelers defense became indisputable in 2013 commentators rightly pegged the dip to the to the 1,279 snaps logged by rookies during Dick LeBeau’s second to last year as defensive coordinator.

  • Three years later, it looked like rookies would write a similar story for Keith Butler’s second year as defensive coordinator.

People forget, but as Steelers scribe Carlos Ortega pointed out, at the middle of the 2016 the Steelers defense was on pace to match the 1988 Steelers defense’s records for futility. The turnaround of the Steelers defense on the back end of the 2016 is certainly one of the under-reported stories and it happened in large part because Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave stopped playing like rookies.

  • On paper, all three men will pick up right where they left off.

Think about it. Who were the only two Steelers to touch Tom Brady during the AFC Championship game? Davis and Hargrave. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler need these men to grow in their second years. And while that’s a reasonable expectation, it is far from a given.

Troy Edwards won the Steelers 1999 rookie of the year, and returned to training camp defended his lax training regimen by complaining that he couldn’t race air. Kendrell Bell looked like a Chad Brown, James Farrior, Ryan Shazier composite as a rookie 2001, but injuries and an unwillingness to learn coverage schemes surfaced at St. Vincents in the summer of 2002.

A sophomore slump by any of these stud 2016 rookies could have catastrophic consequences for the Steelers defense in 2017.

2. Can T.J. Watt (or perhaps Chickillo) Become Starter Capable at Outside Linebacker?

The emergence Burns, Davis and Hargrave only partially explains the Steelers 2016 defensive turnaround. The rest of the turn around was fueled by Bud Dupree’s return to the lineup and James Harrison’s promotion to starter.

  • James Harrison is, by definition, a living legend.

And if the 2016’s James Harrison wasn’t the same as the 2008 version of Harrison that won the NFL’s defensive player of the year award, he was still better than any other outside linebacker the Steelers had.

But it would be foolish for anyone to expect James Harrison to remain a 16 game 3 down, four quarter starter in 2017.

If the Steelers are to seriously contend for Lombardi number 7 in 2017, someone else must step up. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert drafted TJ Watt to be that man, and if OTAs are any indication, the linebacker clearly has the athletic skills. The Steelers need to use training camp to get him ready to contribute early and often.

The other alternative would be to see if Anthony Chickillo can contribute on the right side. That’s not something that Steelers coaches seem to be considering, but we suggested it last year and will do so again.

3. Can Senquez, Sensabaugh or Sutton Turn the Corner?

The narrative on Pittsburgh’s defense since getting torched by Aaron Rogers in Super Bowl XLV has been that the Steelers need to get better at cornerback. This narrative has played for so long that William Gay, one of the “culprits” in 2010, has gone from scapegoat to “Big Play Willie Gay” to a player whose skills are seen as being on the decline.

  • Keenan Lewis looked ready to break out in 2012, yet the Steelers let him go, gambling on Cortez Allen offering more “upside.”

Ike Taylor failed in his footrace with father time. Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin and Justin Gilbert came and went. If Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell give the Steelers two solid options as starting cornerbacks, the AFC Championship revealed their limits. But the depth behind him is simply unproven, save for William Gay whom many pundits argue should be gone.

The good news is that with Coty Sensabaugh, Senquez Golson, Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, the Steelers for the first time in a long time, bring some real quantity to training camp with them. If the Steelers are going to make a serious Super Bowl run, Carnell Lake must find a way to coax come quality out of that unit over the next few weeks on the grass of Chuck Noll Field.

4. Can the Steelers Build Viable Depth at Running Back Behind Bell?

It says here that any running back sets both regular season and playoff rushing single game rushing records that neither Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis could touch is special. But the self-life of NFL running backs is precariously short.

It also says here that the process of trying to extend Le’Veon Bell’s shelf life by limiting his carries a simple exercise on paper but a horrendously complicated endeavor when you try to do it in the heat of a game.

  • Did anyone really want to see Tomlin spell Le’Veon Bell with Fitzgerald Toussaint in his record setting performance over the Bills?

I don’t think so either. Regardless of whether he had a choice or not, Todd Haley over used Le’Veon Bell down the stretch in 2016. Yes, lack of a number two wide receiver to complement Antonio Brown had a lot to do with that, but the fact is the Steelers cupboard was bare at running back.

On paper, the Steelers have given themselves better options for improving running back depth in 2016, by saying goodbye to DeAngelo Williams, drafting James Conner, and signing Knile Davis. And Fitzgerald Toussiant will be back as well.

The days when the Steelers RB depth chart would read Bettis, Huntley, Zereoue, Fuamatu-Ma’afala and Witman, with some guy named on Kreider on the practice squad have ended and will never return. But the Steelers have rolled the dice for several seasons by going with an offensive backfield that was 2 or at and a half players deep.

  • And they’ve paid for it in the post season, in three straight years.

Even if Le’Veon Bell can stay completely healthy for a 19 straight games (yes, that’s counting on a 1st round playoff bye) Steelers running backs coach James Saxon needs to use his time at St. Vincents to establish solid depth behind his starter.

Has Ben Roethlisberger‘s Career Come Full Circle?

As a rookie, injuries forced Ben Roethlisberger into the lineup where he lead team that had finished 6-10 the season before to a 15-1 finish an a playoff run that ended with a AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots.

The loss was devastating to Jerome Bettis, who’d planned to retire and felt he’d lost his shot at a championship. On the sidelines, rookie Ben Roethlisberger implored “The Bus” to return, promising he’d get him his ring. Roethlisberger delivered as the Steelers triumphed in Super Bowl XL.

Now, as Roethlisberger contemplates parking his own bus, the question remains as to whether his teammates can deliver as he did for Bettis 12 years ago.

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Why Pitt Standout James Conner’s Impact with Steelers Could Come Sooner than You Think….

“I’ve seen him play. You’ve seen him play. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be good.”

That quote was from me to my brother last week, shortly after the Steelers selected Pitt running back James Conner with their compensatory third-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

James Conner, Steelers 2017 3rd round draft pick

James Conner rushing for Pitt @ Heinz Field. Photo credit: PennLive.com

Obviously, being from Pittsburgh and a huge fan of the University of Pittsburgh, my opinion about James Conner may be partially due to homerism. After all, leading up to the draft, how many football fans expressed a desire for their favorite pro team to draft a player from their favorite college team?

This happens all the time.

But I wasn’t the only one who reacted joyfully to the news that Conner’s college home stadium–Heinz Field–would turn into his professional home stadium.

  • First, who doesn’t love everything about James Conner?

After rushing for 1,759 yards in his sophomore year of 2014, Conner was named the ACC Player of the Year.

  • But just when it appeared that Conner was headed for greatness, he received a double punch to the gut.

The first punch was a torn MCL, which he sustained in the 2015 season opener. The second, more devastating strike occurred many months later, when Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer  that was discovered by doctors while he was undergoing rehab for his injured knee.

You know the story by now: Conner absorbed both punches and kept on fighting. By May of 2016, he was declared cancer-free; and in his final season at Pitt, he rushed for 1,092 yards on 216 attempts.

  • Obviously, less than a year after the physical toll that chemo and the MCL tear took on his body, the burst and explosiveness weren’t quite the same.

It’s impossible to know where James Conner would have been drafted without those setbacks, but he was selected high enough that he’ll be given much more than a puncher’s chance to have a decent career with the Steelers.

  • And why does it have to be just decent?

I realize Le’Veon Bell, and his current status as the NFL’s best running back is one reason James Conner may never get to truly make his mark at the professional level. Another reason is obviously the knee injury.

But when James Conner lines up in the offensive backfield this season, he won’t be the only Steelers running back who suffered a torn MCL at Heinz Field in 2015. Le’Veon Bell sustained that very same injury in Week 8 against the Bengals and was done for the year.

  • Which brings me back to the chance James Conner might get to make a difference for the Steelers sooner than people think.

For anyone to examine the Steelers top four picks, which also include linebacker T.J. Watt, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and cornerback Cameron Sutton and wonder if they will be able to help them in their rookie seasons may have forgotten about the depth issues the team has faced in recent years.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Bengals

Le’Veon Bell before he was injured against the Bengals. Photo Credit: USATSI via CBS.com

And that’s especially been the case at the running back spot, where Le’Veon Bell, despite his all-world talents and tremendous production, has missed a total of 17 games due to either injuries or suspensions over his first four seasons.

As for the postseason, the 2016 edition was the first Le’Veon Bell was actually healthy at the start of. And while he did set franchise records by rushing for a combined 337 yards in back-to-back victories over the Dolphins and Chiefs, he was limited in the AFC title game versus the Patriots after aggravating a groin injury he reportedly had been nursing for a couple of weeks.

Unlike the torn MCL Le’Veon Bell suffered in 2015 or the hyper-extended knee he sustained at the end of the 2014 season (both occurring after questionable tackles in games against the Bengals), it could be argued that an injured groin for a running back is a symptom of overuse.

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But the one thing that is certain is that Pittsburgh has been limited at the running back spot in each of the past three postseasons.

  • You know what they say about not learning from history.

Therefore, while it would be foolish to think James Conner is going to get any greater workload than what LeGarrette Blount and DeAngelo Williams both received while playing behind a healthy Le’Veon Bell in the past, it would also be foolish to assume he won’t be called upon to help the Steelers in 2017.

If the Steelers truly believe Bell’s injury, which required surgical repair in March, was caused by overuse, they might already be thinking about lightening the star running back’s load–even if it’s just a few less carries a game.

If the Steelers are forced to turn to James Conner for one reason or another, what kind of running back will they be getting? That’s hard to predict. Obviously, like every other draft prospect, Conner has his weaknesses, which, according to his NFL.com draft profile, include average lateral movement and a lack of elite speed. But then again, those were some of the same criticisms Bell had to overcome coming out of college–and that was before he suffered a torn MCL. 

James Conner, Steelers, Le'Veon Bell backup, Steelers backup running back

Soon former Pitt running back James Conners will be delivering stiff arms while wearning the Black and Gold. Photo Credit: Julia Rendleman, Post-Gazette

Despite his maturity issues that have led to two drug-related suspensions, Le’Veon Bell is a hard worker and has certainly gotten the most out of his abilities. If there was a do-over of the 2013 NFL Draft, instead of lasting until the second round, No. 26 would be a top-10 selection.

Will James Conner have a chance to get the most out of his abilities in Pittsburgh? There’s no doubt he’s a hard worker, willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. As per Kevin Colbert in his post-draft media appearances, Conner has a great opportunity to make a name for himself on special teams.

As for moving up the running back depth chart, James Conner obviously has to develop an all-around game that includes being a reviving target for Ben Roethlisberger out of the backfield and picking up the blitz (two things Bell also excels at, which is why he never comes off the field).

The sooner James Conner improves in areas besides just running the ball, the quicker he’ll distance himself from the likes of Knile Davis and Fitzgerald Toussaint, which shouldn’t pose too great a challenge.

  • What about the very top of the running back depth chart?

As it stands right now, why would anyone want to mess with what Le’Veon Bell is doing? The answer is, nobody would.

But in addition to his injury history and suspension issues, there could be contractual issues with Le’Veon Bell. Unless the two sides come to an agreement, Le’Veon Bell will play the 2017 season under the franchise tag. Sure, he will get paid rather handsomely, but he’s eventually going to want a multi-year deal that will annually pay him at least the $12 million he’ll earn next season.

  • What happens if the two sides never agree on Le’Veon Bell’s worth?

In a perfect world, Le’Veon Bell will ink a new deal and go on to have a Hall of Fame career, while James Conner develops as a player and bides his time in Pittsburgh for four years, before signing with another team looking for a featured running back.

But this is not a perfect world, and that’s why James Conner’s impact with the Steelers could come a lot sooner than people think.

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Does Steelers 2017 Draft Class Display Kevin Colbert’s Confidence or Cockiness?

NFL teams don’t draft in a vacuum. Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys in 1989 and Chuck Noll’s Steelers in 1969 serve as exceptions, but only expansion teams get a blank slate.

The choices those men make tell us a lot about how they see their respective teams. The Steelers 2017 Draft Class certainly qualifies.

Steelers 2017 Draft Class, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin

Kevin Colbert & Mike Tomlin during the 2017 NFL Draft

Let’s look at the context in which Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin assembled the Steelers 2017 Draft class.

After going 8-8 and out of the playoffs for two straight years, the Steelers made the playoffs in 2014, only to get booted by the Ravens at Heinz Field. A year later the Steelers discipline lifted them over the Bengals on the road, and then saw a short-handed team fall just shy of beating Denver on the road. In 2016 the Steelers won their first two playoff games, only to get shredded by New England in the AFC Championship.

Diagnosing what ailed the Steelers in New England is quite simple:

  • The Steelers couldn’t pressure Tom Brady
  • Tom Brady used the time Pittsburgh gave to him to decimate the Steelers secondary
  • Pittsburgh lacked a receiving target capable of taking heat off of Antonio Brown
  • When Le’Veon Bell went down, the Steelers struggled to run the ball effectively

With those bitter memories in mind, let’s review the Steelers 2017 Draft Class in the order they were picked:

1. TJ Watt, Outside Linebacker, Wisconsin
2. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Receiver, USC
3 a. Cam Sutton, Cornerback, Tennessee
3 b. James Conner, Running Back, Pitt
4. Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback, Tennesse
5. Brian Allen, Cornerback, Utah
6. Colin Holba, Long Snapper, Louisville
7. Keion Adams, Outside Linebacker, Western Michigan

In the 2017 NFL Draft the Steelers immediately applied their premium picks towards addressing each of those pain points the Patriots so gleefully exploited. The Steelers thinking is clear:

  • James Harrison isn’t going to outrace father time forever, so they draft in TJ Watt
  • Neither Martavis Bryant nor Sammie Coates have proven their reliability, so they draft JuJu Smith-Schuster
  • The Steelers need a 3rd corner and DBs capable of manning up, hence Cam Sutton
  • Pittsburgh’s chronic inability to keep two starter-capable running backs healthy easily explains the Jimmy Conners pick.

After that, things got fuzzy fast.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Gerry Dulac, never a journalist wont to hyperbole offered this on Twitter:

Dulac could have added 5th round pick Nathaniel Adibi whom Bill Cowher allegedly insisted on drafting over Marcus Turner. Of the fivesome, only two played in the NFL, and only Matt Kranchick played a down for the Steelers (1 catch for 6 yards, but it was a heck of a catch….)

In rapid fire, the Steelers drafted quarterback Joshua Dobbs, cornerback Brian Allen, long snapper (yes, you’d hopped the “LS” on you saw on ESPN’s draft crawl as a typo, didn’t you?)
Colin Holba and finally Keion Adams.

On the surface it appears, the Steelers devoted the top half of the draft addressing their most urgent needs, and then Colbert and Tomlin spent the rest on luxury picks. With the benefit of a few days of perspective, let’s see if that’s the case.

Does Steelers 2017 Draft Class Indicate Colbert’s Confidence, or Cockiness?

The Joshua Dobbs pick was the first one that Steel Curtain Rising took issue with.

Dobbs, by all accounts is a solid pickup in the 4th round, but at the time the Steelers still had more pressing needs at inside linebacker and perhaps tight end. However, their subsequent decision to release Zach Mettenberger explains a lot.

The Steelers had 20 weeks to workout Mettenberger work, and they clearly they saw enough. If they don’t think he’ll be ready to challenge Landry Jones for the right to backup Ben Roethlisberger in 2017, its best to invest salary cap dollars in someone who will do it in 2018.

  • Looking at the other picks, however, it is hard not to recall Art Rooney Jr.’s reflections on the late 1970’s.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were of course a drafting juggernaut during the first half of the 70’s, only to see the quality of their drafts drop off a cliff as the decade closed. It’s easy to chalk that decline up to lousy draft position, but the 49er’s of the 80’s and the Patriots of his century have shown winning championships and quality drafting can go hand-in-hand.

  • Tension between Rooney Jr. and Noll, and moving the draft into spring hurt the Steelers.

But the Steelers also hurt themselves. With their roster laden with Super Bowl veterans, they got away from taking the best player on the board, an instead tried to identify and then draft players who fell for one reason or another. Looking at the latter picks of the Steelers 2017 Draft Class, it’s tempting to wonder if Colbert and Tomlin aren’t succumbing to the same temptation.

Cornerback Brian Allen, Carnell Lake assured us, would have been drafted higher had he played defense for more than two seasons in college. Colin Holba was one of the few “draftable long snappers” in this draft, so the Steelers took him. And those who roll their eyes at the concept of a “draftable long snapper” Bill Belichick drafted a long snapper with a fifth round pick in 2014 and won a Super Bowl. Keion Adams is a guy who has “really developed over the last few years.”

  • Fair enough. But these Steelers lack the pedigree of their 70’s predecessors and their Patriots contemporaries.

No one can argue that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin didn’t address the Steelers most pressing needs with their first four picks of the 2017 NFL Draft. Colbert and Tomlin draft choices also represent a tacit endorsement of Vince Williams, Ladarius Green and Jesse James.

In a word, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin with the confidence that indicates that the Pittsburgh Steelers really are only a couple of three players away from winning the Super Bowl. So be it.

  • Regular readers know that Steel Curtain Rising doesn’t do post-day draft grades.

The Steelers 2017 Draft Class will be graded by the same criteria used to grade their 2016 draft class – whether this group of players helps Ben Roethlisberger bring home Lombardi Number Seven before he begins his “Life’s Work.”

If that happens, then Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert will get an “A” for this draft, regardless of whether any of their Day 3 picks ever play a down in the NFL.

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Hometown Hero Homecoming: Steelers Draft James Conner in 3rd Round, RB Pitt

The close of day two of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Steelers draft James Conner running back from Pitt with their third round compensatory selection.

  • Fans will remember that the Steelers made a similar move with their 3rd round compensatory selection in the 2014 NFL Draft when they took Dri Archer.

Dir Archer turned out to be a veritable head case, but the Steelers can rest assured that James Conner won’t follow in his footsteps. It remains to be seen if Conner can deliver in the NFL, but the man’s character and work ethic are above reproach, as he bounced back from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015 to lead the Pitt Panthers rushing for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016.

Steelers draft James Conner, James Conner, 2017 NFL Draft

Steelers 3rd round draft pick James Conner rushed for 3,733 yards and 52 TD’s at Pitt. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today

Steelers running backs coach James Saxon insisted that Conner wasn’t a sentimental or character pick and James Connor’s highlight reel from Pitt backs him up:

Hearing his name called by the Pittsburgh Steelers is a dream come true for Connor, who in addition to being a standout for Pitt, is an Erie native who played at McDowell High School.

James Connor will provide an immediate boost to a running back depth chart that has struggled to keep two starting caliber running backs healthy since the 2011 season. Le’Veon Bell will remain the uncontested starter, but after Bell the Steelers only have Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis behind him, a duo whose collective yards-per-carry average is 3.15.

James Conner described getting drafted by his hometown team as:

It’s a dream come true. I’m forever grateful to them for giving me the opportunity after everything I’ve been through. I know a lot of teams were scared, but they gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, and they are going to get a great person and a great football player, and I’ll give it my all for them.

The Steelers were expected to go for a running back early in the 2017 NFL Draft and Conner’s third round selection all but confirms what has been obvious for a while, DeAngelo Williams is not in Pittsburgh’s plans for 2017.

  • By drafting James Conner on the third round the Steelers revived what had once been a robust franchise tradition: Giving Pitt Panthers the possibility to play in the NFL.

The Steelers have drafted over 46 players from the University of Pittsburgh, but have not taken a Panther in the NFL Draft since choosing Hank Poteat in the 2000 NFL Draft.

That’s a far cry from the 1980’s, when the Steelers took 6 Pitt Players in the draft, including 3 in the 1989 NFL Draft in the form of Tom Ricketts, Jerry Olsavsky and Carlton Haselrig who was a Pitt-Johnstown graduate.

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