Welcome back, Conner

He had help, from the offensive line, tight ends and wide receivers blocking to running back Benny Snell’s complementary ball-carrying and catching.

It all contributed mightily to getting James Conner started against the Chargers.

But the change in Conner’s game was likewise evident in last Sunday night’s 24-17 victory.

Conner was running harder, and was harder to tackle because he was either running through defenders or making them miss.

It was what the circumstances demanded and Conner delivered as necessary.

“Absolutely,” running backs coach Eddie Faulkner assessed. “I think he knew he needed to do that. With the state of which our team was, he knew to play well.

“He put a lot of onus on knowing the gameplan, coming out there with energy, kind of providing that for the offense. I was proud of the way he played.”

Conner carried 16 times for 41 yards and a touchdown.

He also caught seven passes on seven targets from third-string quarterback Devlin Hodges for an additional 78 yards and another score.

It was the second time Conner surpassed 100 combined yards this season and his second such performance in three weeks (he had 42 on the ground and 83 on receptions for a combined 125 yards on Sept. 30 against the Bengals).

But it was the particulars that stood out in Carson, Calif.

The third time he touched the ball, Conner eluded safety Roderic Teamer for a 4-yard reception on second-and-8.

The seventh time he handled it, Conner got the better of cornerback Michael Davis for a 4-yard catch on third-and-4.

Those were two of seven snaps on Conner’s seven-touch, 40-yard touchdown drive in the opening quarter.

The evening’s signature play came in the second quarter, when Conner caught a pass in the flat, ran through linebacker Jatavis Brown’s attempted tackle near the sideline and bounded into the end zone on a 26-yard touchdown reception.

Six of Conner’s touches resulted in first downs, including five on third downs.

It was the type of big-game, big-time-back stuff Faulkner knows Conner has produced previously and expects to keep seeing from him.

“He’s done that in his history and I think he’ll continue to do it,” Faulkner said. “He’s a great player, he’s tenacious. A lot of times why he gets nicked up is because of the way he approaches the game.

“I fully expect him to continue on this trend. He’s one of the top backs in the league and I’d fully expect him to be that guy for us.”

Something Conner didn’t do against the Chargers was also significant.

He didn’t lose a fumble, as he had last season in Cleveland and Denver and this season in San Francisco late in games the Steelers were winning but ultimately didn’t win.

“Obviously, the San Francisco game was an unfortunate situation,” Faulkner said. “Obviously, we know he doesn’t want to but I know the tension is there on trying to minimize putting the ball on the ground. He knows the urgency with it.

“It’s the first thing I talk about every day. It’s the first thing we drill every day. So the emphasis is there, he knows it. And if you watch closely in the last few games, he’s done a really good job of getting both hands over the ball and protecting it.

“When he’s getting in contact situations he’s putting two hands over the ball, he’s finishing. The Chargers’ defenders were ball-searching, trying to rip the ball out. He was keeping it tight and did a good job with that. He’s to be commended but, obviously, that’s his job and I expect him to continue to do that and be better.”

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