PITTSBURGH (AP) — Terrell Watson has been there. James Conner, too.
The Pittsburgh Steelers running backs know what it’s like to have the ball in their hands on nearly every play, each carry serving as another body blow to a defense worn down from a long afternoon trying and failing to keep them in check.
In those moments during their prolific collegiate careers — Watson at Azuza Pacific, Conner at Pittsburgh — they never worried about the workload. Their only concern was the moment.
“I got the ball 40-some times in college,” Watson said. “They didn’t play ‘I’m going to keep him fresh for next week.’ No, we’re playing right now.”
It’s similar in the NFL. Only now Watson and Conner’s perspectives have changed. Instead of the ones doing the grinding, they’re the ones on the sideline trying to simply stay ready just in case All-Pro Le’Veon Bell needs a break, a rarity for a player on pace for more than 450 touches.
“I know what the situation was when they drafted me,” said Conner, taken in the third round last spring after setting an Atlantic Coast Conference record with 56 career touchdowns at Pitt. “(Bell) was going to be the man. I’m OK with that.”
So is Bell, though his production has put the first-place Steelers (6-2) in a bit of a tight spot. They are at their best when he’s the engine driving the offense. And yet there’s the lingering question how much is too much for a player who sat out most of an AFC championship game loss to New England after a groin injury flared up.
Bell insists he’s getting stronger as Pittsburgh prepares to start the second half of the season Sunday against Indianapolis (3-6). Still, he admits “I don’t need all the carries.”
Maybe, but he’s pretty much getting them.
Bell has 229 touches through eight games. Conner has 18. Watson? Five. And while the coaching staff talks extensively about trying to find spots to give Bell a breather, they haven’t exactly gone to great lengths to give him one. Bell has been on the field for 90 percent of Pittsburgh’s offensive snaps. Conner and Watson? Eight percent, combined.
Hey, that’s business.
“You got to fulfill your role,” said the 240-pound Watson, who is used primarily in short-yardage situations and on special teams. “You got to understand what your role is. We all want to be the starting running back, but we all can’t. Like all coaches want to be head coaches but they all can’t be a head coach. Just do your job and when your number is called, you got to be ready for it.”
Part of the issue has little to do with lack of talent but lack of versatility and nuance. Bell isn’t only one of the best running backs in the league, he’s arguably the best pass-catching back since Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk was doing his thing with Kurt Warner and “The Greatest Show on Turf” Rams around the turn of the millennium.
Oh, and Bell is effective picking up the blitz, a part of Conner’s game that remains a work in progress, though quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can see the growth.
“He’s more comfortable, less questions,” Roethlisberger said. “I can look at him and ask him, ‘Are you good?’ and ‘Got it.’ Obviously that’s good. He’ll continue to push himself to want to be better, whether that’s running the ball, pass blocking, running routes. … I’m just pleased he keeps taking steps forward.”
Don’t expect Conner to pipe up asking for the ball. Yes, it’s a little weird for a player who averaged 17 carries a game while starring for the Panthers to take on a secondary role. Considering he’s on a team with Super Bowl aspirations and the guy ahead of him on the depth chart is having an MVP-type season, there are far worse problems to have. So he and Watson will continue to work, listen, learn and wait.
“We’re winning,” Conner said. “So long as we’re winning, I’m good.”
NOTES: S Mike Mitchell (Achilles tendon) was limited in practice on Wednesday. … LB James Harrison (back) did not practice. … DE Stephon Tuitt (back), RT Marcus Gilbert (hamstring) and LG Ramon Foster (back) were full participants.