For the first time, the old backfield friends will stand on opposing sidelines.
On Sunday, Steelers running back James Conner will face the man he used to back up, Jets back Le’Veon Bell.
A three-time All-Pro with the Steelers, Bell infamously did not show up last season, protesting a second franchise tag. He then signed a four-year, $52.5 million contract with the Jets this past offseason.
Conner and Bell were close while the two played here in 2017, and Conner claims he took a lot away from Bell, as a player.
“A lot of things,” Conner said. “Just how to be a professional. He’s approached his work, every day, as a professional. He always came to work and did the little things right to make the big things go. I definitely learned a lot from him.”
Conner, however, says that while the two remain close, they have not been in touch this week.
“Nah, we’ve got to win this game,” he said. “We’re leaving the emotions out of it. It’s a friend, but there’s really nothing to say.”
The Steelers do have to win. At 8-6 and in the second wild card position, a loss could cost them a shot at the postseason.
Conner has missed a total of five games this season with a shoulder injury, and has seemingly been limited in the last two games he played, going for five carries for ten yards in November 14’s loss at Cleveland, in which he re-injured his shoulder. Sunday, against Buffalo, he ran eight times for 42 yards and caught a touchdown pass. But he was used little down the stretch.
He maintains that his shoulder is on the mend, though it may not be fully healed.
"Great, I feel great,” he said. “Blessed. Blessed and highly favored.
“It’s not going to completely go away. It’s not going to be 100 percent. But we’re in a tough position. We have to win.”
The shoulder, he says, held up through the course of the game, though it was a little sore afterwards. He did not indicate that it had an impact on his lack of workload, though his limited use was puzzling to many.
“If I was surprised or not is kind of irrelevant,” he said. “I just executed the plays that were called.
“We talked about it being spread out. I felt good out there.”
The Steelers run game faces another strong test in New York. The Jets are second in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game.
“They’re just a fast group on defense,” Conner said. “They’ve got a lot of good players up front. They get penetration. The secondary is good and (safety) Jamal Adams has been playing really, really good for them. It’ll be a tough challenge for us, but I’m excited about it though.”
The Steelers will again start Devlin Hodges at quarterback Sunday, despite his four interception debacle of a passing performance against Buffalo.
So will Conner be ready for a higher work load or even a smaller one, similar to what Pittsburgh dialed up for him this past weekend?
“If that’s how the game goes," he said. "I’ll be ready for whatever.”