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Conner's development an antidote for Bell's absence

In the context of trying to extract information, posing questions that generate one-word answers typically are of little value and therefore are to be avoided at all costs. But during Coach Mike Tomlin’s news conference today at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, he answered three questions with one-word answers, and those answers spoke volumes about how the Steelers are viewing their running back situation heading into the 2018 regular season opener in Cleveland.

This subject only is worth asking Tomlin about because of Le’Veon Bell’s continued absence from the team. When Bell received the franchise tag from the Steelers in 2017, he skipped all of the offseason program, training camp, and the four preseason games before showing up on Labor Day to sign the tender. Bell started for the Steelers the following Sunday in their opener, also against the Browns in Cleveland.

This offseason, Bell again received the franchise tag from the Steelers, and once again he skipped all of the offseason program, training camp, and the four preseason games. This year, however, Bell didn’t report on Labor Day to sign his tender, which makes his availability for the opener, and also his readiness for it, an unknown.

Naturally, that was the first question posed to Tomlin at his news conference.

“As I’ve told you throughout this process, when he gets here, that’s when we’ll start quantifying all Le’Veon Bell-related things,” said Tomlin. “His overall readiness, the amount of time we have between his arrival and our next competition, etc. We’ll weigh all of those things at the appropriate time, but right now we’re just singularly focused on the guys who are here and working, (the guys) who have been here and working, and just kind of building a plan around variables that we know.”

One year ago, Bell started the opener against the Browns, and he played 43 of the Steelers’ 60 offensive snaps. He carried 10 times for 32 yard and caught three passes for 15 more, but even though he clearly wasn’t the first-team All-Pro that he ended up being by the end of the season, the Steelers’ hands were tied because the only other running backs on the roster at this time last year were a rookie draft pick named James Conner and a green second-year pro named Terrell Watson who had entered the league as an undrafted rookie.

This year, Conner is in his second season and is a far better version of himself, according to Tomlin, and also on the depth chart is veteran Stevan Ridley, who once rushed for over 1,400 yards in a season for the Patriots and has a Super Bowl ring from his time there.

“We expect a lot from second-year players in terms of growth and development,” said Tomlin. “We spent a lot of time talking about the growth and development of James Conner, and appropriately so. He’s put that on display though this process.”

But all things being equal, the team’s best running back is Bell, and so Tomlin fielded more questions on this issue, and this is where his one-word answers took over.

“Is there anything you won’t do, or won’t do as much of (in this opener in Cleveland), as you might have done with Bell?”

“No,” said Tomlin.

“Do you feel more comfortable with what you have behind Le’Veon going into Cleveland than you did last year?”

“Yes,” said Tomlin.

“Why is that?”

“James,” said Tomlin.

TOMLIN’S INJURY UPDATE

“When we look at ourselves, the overall health of our team is pretty good. The vast majority of guys who missed some time throughout the process have worked in some capacity and even participated in the last preseason game. Even those who we didn’t allow to participate in the game have been practice participants at least in some capacity. We expect that to continue. We should anticipate all members of our team at least being partial participants as we get started this week with practice, and then we’ll let that be our guide in terms of their inclusion in our plan. Some of those guys I’m talking about are Vance McDonald, James Washington, Mike Hilton, T.J. Watt, and Xavier Grimble. We’ll watch some of those guys and divide the labor up and utilize their talents accordingly based on what we see as the week progresses. I’ll know more (about McDonald) once he participates in practice (Wednesday). He will be at least a partial participant (Wednesday), and we will see what the result of that work is.”

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