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Steelers 33, Browns 18: James Conner putting up historic numbers

After every Steelers game this season, the name of a certain Steelers running back has been mentioned in this space in the context of how the Steelers are getting along without him.

The name of this jet-skiing rapper usually comes as an aside late in the column.

That ends this week, because this guy has become an afterthought and his name doesn’t even deserve any search engine optimization.

James Conner, meanwhile, has earned prominent mention after running for a career-high 146 yards and two touchdowns and also catching five passes for 66 yards in the Steelers’ 33-18 win over the Browns Sunday at Heinz Field.

Conner shouldn’t have to be talked about in the same breath as the guy who he used to back up. He does, however, merit a place in the same sentence as some of the greatest running backs in franchise history.

No, Conner hasn’t done nearly enough to be directly compared to Franco Harris or Willie Parker. But he has matched at least one of their accomplishments.

Conner has gained 100 or more yards and scored two touchdowns four times this season. Harris and Parker are the only other Steelers to do that. Harris did it in 1979 and Parker in 2006. Conner still has more than half a season to go, and neither Harris nor Parker hit that mark in three straight games like Conner has, according to Pro Football Reference.

Conner also joined Harris as the only Steelers with nine rushing touchdowns through the first seven games of a season.

It didn’t look like it would be Conner’s day Sunday when he had just 19 rushing yards midway through the second quarter and 45 rushing yards in the first half.

Unlike that guy who used to start ahead of him, however, Conner was there when the Steelers needed him most in the second half.

The Steelers led 14-6 at halftime and looked ready to break the game open when Browns rookie left tackle Desmond Harrison was called for holding in the end zone, giving the Steelers a safety and a 16-6 lead.

The Browns pounced on the free kick, however, because Ryan Switzer and Antonio Brown treated it like a punt. Neither fielded the ball and they left it untouched not realizing that either team can take possession of a free kick.

Denzel Rice recovered the ball at the Steelers’ 24 and with the help of a roughing-the-passer penalty and two pass-interference penalties, the Browns cut their deficit to 16-12 on Baker Mayfield‘s 1-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Callaway with 5:24 left in the third quarter.

Suddenly, the Browns (2-5-1) had the momentum. The Steelers committed eight penalties for 60 yards and maintained their dubious distinction as the most penalized team in the NFL. That, as well as their miscue on the free kick, is further demonstration of the organization’s lack of attention to detail.

Because safeties are rare, free kicks don’t come up often in football. Still, the coaching staff needs to prepare the players in training camp for that situation.

The Steelers (4-2-1) have won three straight and have displayed a resiliency this season that has been a commendable trait of Mike Tomlin-coached teams.

That said, to win its first championship in 10 years, this team will probably have to stop Patrick Mahomes or outwit Tom Brady. Or both. That’s going to take some diligence in preparation to curb the penalties and prevent silly mistakes like Sunday’s free kick fiasco.

That gaffe could have been a lot more costly if it weren’t for Conner.

After the Browns pulled to within 16-12, Conner banged out a 30-yard run on the first play of the Steelers’ ensuing possession. David DeCastro threw a key block and Conner spun free from a couple of tackles. Conner followed that up with a 16-yard run and three plays later ran for a 12-yard touchdown to increase the Steelers’ lead to 23-12 with 2:42 left in the third quarter.

Conner caught three passes for 33 yards on a drive that resulted in a field goal and a 26-12 Steelers lead early in the fourth quarter. Then with just over two minutes left, he stuck a fork in the Browns with a 22-yard touchdown run to make it 33-12.

With 599 rushing yards, Conner was third in the NFL through Sunday afternoon’s games. Only Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott have more rushing yards. That’s elite company. And Conner’s on pace to gain 1,369 yards this season. That would be eight more than a certain Steelers running back in 2014, which was a career high.

Conner has proven to be just as indispensable as that guy.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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