Mullets and makeovers: Inside Steelers RB plan minus Le’Veon

LATROBE, Pa. — “Backs on backers” is the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ signature training camp drill, a buzzworthy throwback that draws a circle of scouts, coaches and players out of anticipation. The one-on-one matchups are light on rules and heavy on contact: A tight end or running back must slow a charging linebacker from penetrating the pocket.

This was not a strength of James Conner‘s a year ago. His pass-protection struggles contributed to 68 offensive snaps and 32 carries as a rookie. But on Friday in Latrobe Memorial, his stuff-and-turn of linebacker Matt Galambos excites his quarterback.

“Attaboy, James!” an onlooking Ben Roethlisberger barks twice as Conner gets high-fives from his position group after showing fight on back-to-back reps.

The Steelers’ backfield is missing the star power of Le’Veon Bell, but it’s not lacking in fight, which might just translate to something bigger in 2019.

Bell is expected to wait until September to sign his franchise tag, then hit unrestricted free agency six months later. And no one here is delusional: A healthy Bell will touch the ball 350-400 times in 2018.

“When Le’Veon gets back, he’s going to start — there’s no secret,” Conner said. “I’m just trying to make the most of the reps.”

But the current stable of backs — from improving young draft picks to game-ready veterans — deepens the intrigue for the future of the position in Pittsburgh.

Conner’s Year 2 leap

Conner has a boisterous personality with teammates, but that doesn’t come out much in group media sessions. He’s a third-round pick trying to learn the NFL game while playing behind a star back who’s not here. He’s also eager to let his play talk for him, and that comes out with every quietly voiced, just-keep-working-hard response to questions.

Ask about the curly growth on the back of his head, though, and Conner beams.

“Mullet on the way!” said Conner, touching his curls. “Thanks for that [question].”

Though the topic was a welcome departure, his game is speaking confidently of late.

After an admittedly humbling rookie season, Conner looks quicker, more decisive and more physical in Year 2. He’s been the best running back on the field the past two weeks, a point punctuated by a beautiful diving catch in the corner of the end zone from Roethlisberger during the “seven shots” drill Sunday.

“He just looks in great shape,” center Maurkice Pouncey said. “He’s blocking really well in the passing game. Hopefully he keeps building on that and we’ll see how things go … When you first come in, you don’t know a lot of things that are going to happen. The expectations are a lot more for him and he’s handling it well.”

Conditioning was an issue during Conner’s rookie year, something he addressed this offseason while back home in Erie, Pennsylvania. He underwent two-a-days with his trainer and kept a diet of “eating clean and drinking a lot of water,” he said.

“I’ve grown a lot, so I really don’t like to think about the rookie year,” Conner said. “But it gave me an opportunity to grow and sit back and look at things.”

The growth is showing in yards. In a practice session last week, Conner hit two runs that required quick cutback footwork and body contortion to slither through a shrinking hole.

Each carry is bringing confidence.

“I got a good jump start on it, and now that we’re in training camp it’s time to elevate it even more,” Conner said.

Ridley hits pause on remodeling job

Facing 15 jobless weeks in the fall is daunting for an NFL player under 30 — especially a former 1,000-yard rusher.

Stevan Ridley coped with a hammer in his hand. Before the Steelers called him with a job offer in Week 16, Ridley was remodeling the home he bought two years ago in Natchez, Mississippi, where he grew up. He had a crew of two or three workers and was involved in every physically demanding step.

“Doing the old country labor,” said Ridley, 29, who rushed for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns with the New England Patriots in 2012. “Getting guys to come in there and lay floors, put beams in, all the fun stuff of building a house. The process never ends. It kept me busy. It kept my brain occupied. That was the biggest thing to keep your mind off football. It sucks sitting at the house knowing you can play, so you have to keep yourself busy, so anything that kind of gives you gratification of labor, I’m into.”

The home is 90 percent finished, and Ridley hopes it stays that way.

Ridley, who has overcome knee injuries and played with four different teams since 2014, plans to stick in Pittsburgh. With Conner missing the final two games in 2017 with a knee injury, Ridley’s downhill running style helped produce 108 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries.

He’s hardly a lock for a roster spot but will put his helmet down and make things interesting.

“I’ve never been a speed demon, I’ve never been a burner,” Ridley said. “But in between the tackles, I can do it as good as anyone. Over four quarters I will bang it out. I don’t mind that.”

Ridley is battling Fitzgerald Toussaint for veteran reps. Toussaint has spent four years with the Steelers (partly on the practice squad) and re-signed with Pittsburgh in March.

He has played tough all camp and is not to be discounted because of his reliability.

‘Prepare like you’re the starter’

Bell’s pass-catching has stretched the limits for running backs who can line up anywhere on the field. Fifth-round rookie Jaylen Samuels is the Steelers’ latest hybrid model. He caught 201 passes at NC State (19 for touchdowns) and has snagged just about anything thrown his way on the fields of Saint Vincent College.

But the Steelers knew he could do that, and simply catching passes doesn’t earn trust. Good pass protection does, and Samuels struggled in his first five reps in backs-on-backers. With another chance a few days later, Samuels acquitted himself well, either winning the rep outright or holding his ground with what he called better technique and an unfazed mentality.

It was a step forward.

“It’s a physical mentality here. I learned that quickly,” Samuels said. “And that’s my style of play.”

Samuels is, at best, a third tailback option for Week 1. But the Steelers aren’t putting limits on him or anyone else in the absence of Bell.

Conner is reminded of what running backs coach James Saxon told the entire group during camp.

“Don’t look at the depth chart, prepare like you’re the starter,” Conner said.

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