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James Conner: Steelers RBs must first establish run game

James Conner missed six games last season due to multiple injuries, and the Pittsburgh Steelers' run game wasn't the same without him on the field.

Historically, coach Mike Tomlin prefers employing a single-back system and riding that workhorse. Could this be the year that the Steelers take more of a committee approach not due to injury, but in an effort to get multiple backs on the field and keep Conner healthy?

The fourth-year pro isn't worried about what type of duty he's asked to perform, just that he answers the bell when his number is called.

"It's our job to be at our best no matter how many carries,'' Conner said Tuesday, via The Athletic. "We got to start fast, we have to hit first as a back. That's what I'm going to take pride in this year, just to start fast, whether I'm the guy, however this year works. I said the goal is to win. We need to be ready at all times. Can't warm up to it. That's our slogan, that's what we've been saying: 'Can't warm up to it.'

"I'm not really paying attention to how many carries I need, I don't really believe in that."

Conner is joined in the backfield by Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr., fourth-round pick Anthony McFarland, Kerrith Whyte and Ralph Webb. Conner's dual-threat ability puts him in line for three-down duties if he stays healthy.

Despite the Steelers' proclivity to use their running backs in the passing game, Conner said that it's his job first to establish the ground game before worrying about supplementing the passing attack.

"We need to establish our run game first and foremost," Conner said. "That's what our group is going to take pride in this year, is to get that run game going. But we're essential in the passing game."

When Ben Roethlisberger has been healthy the past decade or so, the Steelers are predominantly a passing team. Big Ben has attempted at least 500 passes in seven of the past 10 years -- the only three he fell short of that figure during, he missed multiple games due to injury. With the starting quarterback set to return, we'd expect Pittsburgh to lean once again on the pass attack.

After seeing 71 targets his way in 2018, when Big Ben was healthy, Conner projects as a three-down back in Pittsburgh as the Steelers' best runner who can also do damage in the passing game.

As the NFL moves more and more towards running back by committee, Conner and the Steelers could be one of the few who see a big workload from one runner in 2020. First, the 25-year-old back needs to stay healthy for a full season.

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