Quarantine workouts have Steelers' James Conner primed for pivotal season

Could this be James Conner's final year in Pittsburgh? (0:47)

Brooke Pryor details James Conner's deep connections to Pittsburgh as the Steelers RB goes into his free-agency year. (0:47)

PITTSBURGH -- When Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner flexed for the camera, the muscles in his back inflated and seemed to pop off his body.

The images took the internet by storm a week ago.

Asked about it on Tuesday, Conner laughed.

"Nah man, it's just the angle -- I ain't been working out," he said sarcastically.

"But no, honestly, a lot of people comment on it and say I'm going to be stiff or all this. I'm a professional. I know how to work out. I think it starts with genetics, but I've also been putting a lot of work into the weight room. It was the way I flexed it. It was nothing. A lot of people look like that."

Flex or not, angle or not, few people look like that.

But Conner does, thanks in part to the hard work he ramped up when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. Preparing for the final year of his rookie contract, Conner used the isolation mandated by the pandemic to better himself and ready his body for perhaps the most important season of his short career. After allowing his injuries from last season to heal, he worked out five or six times a week.

"As soon as the quarantine started, I made a decision just every day trying to get a little bit better and really take advantage of this downtime that we have," Conner said.

"The quarantine helped me get away from all distractions. Not necessarily that they're all distractions, but not be going out. Just staying at home and having to cook at home ... It forces people to stay home. With that time while you're home, I was just trying to get better."

Conner earned a Pro Bowl nod as the Steelers' featured runner when Le'Veon Bell sat out the 2018 season. But Conner has yet to play a 16-game regular season since he was selected by the Steelers in the third round of the 2017 draft.

Last season, Conner injured his knee in Week 2 and shoulder in Week 8, which ultimately caused him to miss five games. A thigh injury against the New York Jets in Week 16 forced him out of that contest in the second quarter and caused him to miss the season finale at the Baltimore Ravens a week later.

In 10 games in 2019, Conner had a disappointing 464 yards on 116 attempts and four touchdowns, averaging 4 yards per attempt.

But Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert isn't worried about last year's injuries affecting Conner's ability to rebound to 2018 form.

"James Conner had acute injuries in 2019," Colbert said. "In 2018, he avoided that and put up a Pro Bowl season. He's still a young, ascending player, and when healthy, he's an NFL Pro Bowl player. Again, that's a hope.

"I know James will enter the season healthy, but you know, can we complement it? We'll see. But I'm not going in thinking we don't have a starter-capable runner because I know James Conner is."

Colbert expressed confidence in Conner, but the Steelers didn't offer him an extension. Instead, they will evaluate him during the final year of his contract before determining his future. Even so, Conner doesn't believe he is playing for a contract this year.

"My goal is to win," Conner said. "I have the opportunity to do that. Going to training camp with this year's team, a special team that we've got. Had some pieces that were out last year coming back healthy, so I'm truly excited for the opportunity to win. I'm not playing for a contract or playing not to get hurt. I'm playing to win. That's what it's all about.

"I have visions of us and me being a part of Super Bowl No. 7 for this organization."

Conner said he is healthy, and Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin have signaled he is the featured back.

"I'm a featured-runner type guy by mentality," Tomlin said recently on a Steelers Nation Unite Huddle fan conference call. "I think that when you have a featured runner, it gives him the opportunity to drop a stake in the ground and allows others to rally around him. And it gives him a set of core base run plays that he specializes in, and you find a rhythm that way."

The Steelers didn't use their top draft picks on a running back, and they also opted against signing a veteran in free agency. But they did add Maryland running back Anthony McFarland Jr. with a fourth-round pick for his change-of-pace speed. With a smaller build, McFarland figures to be a complementary player to Conner, rather than a candidate to replace him as a starter.

With Conner frequently out last season, the Steelers' ground game struggled, and another true feature runner never emerged. Instead, they leaned on a combination of rookie Benny Snell Jr., Jaylen Samuels and former practice squad members Kerrith Whyte and Trey Edmunds. As a unit, the group averaged 3.8 yards per carry. The Steelers' front office has emphasized improving the run game this season.

"We need to establish our run game first -- first and foremost," Conner said Tuesday. "That's what it's going to be about. That's what our group is going to take pride in this year is getting that run game going. But we're essential in the passing game, and we're essential getting passes off. A lot of good backs too. There's a lot of good backs in that room. So they're going to play huge roles on special teams.

"We want to have as many backs on the field as possible, because we feel like we're an athletic group that can contribute."

For Conner, that starts with getting in the gym.

"I threw last year out behind me," he said. "There's nothing I can do to get last year back. I'm working every day as hard as possible to be in the best shape ever, to be the best football player I can be. And when I step out on the field this year, I'm going to give it everything I have."