Conner excels in first career start for Steelers

Le'Veon Bell's absence dominated headlines during the week, but his replacement owned Sunday.

Steelers running back James Conner owned a wet, sloppy Sunday afternoon in Cleveland, rushing for 135 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries in a 21-21 tie.

Conner maintained his usual hard-running style, which flourished on a slippery field early and often. The second-year back rushed for 10 or more yards on five carries, including a 22-yard touchdown romp in the third quarter to put Pittsburgh ahead 21-7. He rarely went down on first contact and, with his five receptions for 57 yards, was about as much of a threat as Bell might have been in a similar set of circumstances.

A late mistake almost sullied his excellent afternoon. Conner took a handoff just inside the eight-minute mark in the fourth quarter with Pittsburgh nursing a 14-point lead and was stripped from behind by Myles Garrett. Browns safety Jabrill Peppers recovered the fumble and returned it to the 1, and one play later, Cleveland was in the end zone.

The game ended in a tie and Conner faded down the stretch, gaining just three yards on his final three carries (five yards gained and a two-yard loss) as the game drifted more and more into the land of the weird. But his contributions in his first career start, on a day in which playing conditions were tough, cannot go overlooked.

As Bell tweeted an emoji in response to the final and both teams rinsed their mouths of the bad taste left by a tie, Conner could walk to his locker with his head held high knowing he'd done his job. Pittsburgh missed Bell much less on Sunday than most imagined the Steelers would, with all of the credit due to the main calming factor: Conner.