Crowded house: Steelers backfield eyes consistency in 2020

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FILE - In this Oct. 28, 2019, file photo, Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) plays against the Miami Dolphins in an NFL football game, in Pittsburgh. Conner wants to prove he can finish a season healthy. (AP Photo/Don Wright, File)

PITTSBURGH – James Conner is tired of answering questions about his health. Really tired. The Pittsburgh Steelers running back remains adamant he can thrive in the NFL if he stays on the field.

Conner understands he can't run from his resume, which includes a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2018 as well as a string of injuries that have limited his effectiveness. He has yet to navigate a full 16-game schedule unscathed. Until he does, the doubts about his durability are going to linger.

“Injuries are going to happen, so I don’t really pay attention to what anyone says,” Conner said. “Honestly, as long as the people who make the important decisions believe in me, that’s all that matters. I really don’t care what anyone else thinks. The ones who make all the important decisions, they believe in me. I believe in myself. I’ll leave it at that.”

Conner is half right. His self-confidence is one of the reasons he morphed from a two-star prospect when he arrived at the University of Pittsburgh to a third-round pick in 2017 following a record-setting career that included a very public victory over cancer.

Yet while the Steelers — general manager Kevin Colbert, in particular — insist they agree with Conner's assessment of his potential, they have not offered him a contract extension. Conner understands he needs to prove he can shoulder a full season's worth of work. And he needs to do it despite the usual lack of preparation thanks to the limitations put in place by the NFL to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a normal summer, the Steelers would be just about ready to break camp at St. Vincent College and head back to the team's facility tucked against the Monongahela River. This summer, there are no preseason games and they won't even put on the pads until Monday, less than a month before the 2020 opener against the New York Giants.

Rarely one to shy away from contact, Conner isn't overly concerned about the lack of full-speed reps before things get going for real.

"I know what it feels like to be in a game and get tackled and have contact and all of that,” Conner said. “We’re not worried about it. It’s the same for everybody. As long as we are professionals, we will be fine.”