By the numbers

The job running back James Conner has done rushing and receiving is easy to assess statistically.

He's third in the league with 771 rushing yards and second in the NFL with 1,158 yards from scrimmage (the same position Le'Veon Bell occupied at the conclusion of the 2017 season).

The job Conner has done in pass protection isn't categorized in such a tangible fashion.

But to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger it's every bit as easy to appreciate.

"He takes pride in not just being a running back," Roethlisberger explained after practice today. "A running back in a lot of people's eyes is a guy that runs the ball. To us, a running back is a guy that does it all, pass blocks, catches, does a little bit of everything, and that's what he's been doing.

"He's been picking up the blitzes and getting better every week and more willing, he's got a lot of heart. To do that job when a linebacker is running full speed at you, to basically tell yourself 'I'm going to get in front of this car accident for you,' it talks about someone's heart.

"And I think he's got it because he shows every week he can do it."

Conner's ascension this season has been as gradual as it has been dramatic.

He showed only a glimpse or two while carrying the ball 32 times in a rookie campaign that was limited to 14 games due to a knee injury.

He displayed little acumen in the passing game and finished with zero receptions (he was targeted once).

It all started to change when the Steelers reconvened in the spring.

"You can watch all you want, OTAs, minicamps, practices, and you say, 'OK, he could have it,'" Roethlisberger said. "But you never know until you get on the field, until Sundays, and you get out there. After that first game it kind of made us say, 'OK, he might have it, let's not be quick to judge,' and he kind of just kept stacking it."

Conner's 135 yards rushing and 192 yards from scrimmage in the season-opening, 21-21 tie in Cleveland represented a breakthrough.

He didn't produce another 100-yard game on the ground until four weeks later, but his 110 yards on Oct. 7 against Atlanta was the first of four such performances in succession.

"It wasn't like there was one moment that was an epiphany and everyone was like 'he's got it,'" Roethlisberger continued. "He just kept kind of putting good performance on good performance, and just kept building it up."

Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has noticed the same steady progression, dating back to before the Steelers' spring sessions.

"His development has been consistent all the way through," Fichtner said. "He had a really good spring. He did a nice job in the offseason in the month we had off, keeping his body in shape. And I thought he had a really good fall camp. He showed moments in every little drill. He was well conditioned, he stayed heathy and he's understood the system and what we've asked him to do.

"There wasn't a day in the offseason where I didn't see him in here. Maybe that was the first sign."

The Steelers prepare for the Week 11 matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars

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