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James Conner shines in his Pittsburgh homecoming

Howard Balzer Avatar
December 3, 2023
James Conner had a great day in Pittsburgh

On a Sunday in Pittsburgh when the game was delayed twice by torrential rain and lightning, and lasted four hours, 18 minutes, Cardinals running back James Conner put an exclamation point on his homecoming and tight end Trey McBride continued to show his emergence in a stunning 24-10 victory over the now 7-5 Steelers.

However, the clear and present message that coach Jonathan Gannon has preached from the day he entered the building last February was obvious to see in a long season that has featured only three wins in 13 games.

Stay the course. Do the right thing. Work. Be there for your teammates.

It was present in what Gannon said afterward when he was asked if there was a sense of pride in his team’s rebound after last week’s 37-14 loss at home to the Rams.

“Honestly, when we got on the plane on Friday, I knew that’s how it was going to go because the week of practice and the preparation from the team, the leadership in that locker room, nobody was down,” Gannon said. “They believe in each other. That’s what we talked about: look to your left, look to your right, don’t let your teammate down, and it showed up all week, and that’s why we gave ourselves a chance to win tonight.”

Conner, who rushed for 105 yards on 25 carries and scored two touchdowns, echoed Gannon’s words.

Asked about the confidence that can be built from a victory over a team that often finds ways to win, Conner said, “It’s big, but confidence comes from preparation throughout the week. That’s where our confidence comes from. We can’t take the confidence from the last victory to the next one.

“So the confidence comes in the preparation throughout the week. The work you put in, how you eat, how you go about your business day to day. Recover and all that. This feels good, but we’ll get our confidence when we get back to work.”

As for the challenge of playing a team with the identify of the Steelers, he said, “That’s how they play, but that’s how we play, too. Our offensive line brought it. Our defense brought it today. Everybody was on point. Team win.”

Dec 3, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Arizona Cardinals running back James Conner (top) jumps over the pile at the line of scrimmage to score a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the third quarter at Acrisure Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Conner emphasized it’s the team’s mentality that has them playing hard despite the adversity they have faced.

“We don’t let our record define us,” he said. “We don’t let that affect how we play, how we take the field, what we try to stand for. We just want to keep fighting.”

“Super proud of the guys,” said quarterback Kyler Murray, whose stat sheet didn’t look impressive, but made plays when they had to be made. “There was no expectation other than coming out of here with a win, so to do that in a hostile environment that this is, great team, this is a huge win.”

Truth be told, the game started out similarly to a week ago. On the opening possession, Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett connected with wide receiver George Pickens on two passes for 51 yards. However, on third-and-5 from the Cardinals 11-yard line, pressure from outside linebacker Dennis Gardeck forced an incompletion and the Steelers had to settle for a 29-yard Chris Bowell field goal.

The Cardinals didn’t answer like they did against the Rams, gaining no yards on a three-and-out. It was on Pittsburgh’s next possession that the usually mistake-free team began unraveling. On third-and-2, Pickett fumbled on an aborted play leading to a punt.

The Cardinals managed only 22 yards on six plays, but got a first down when linebacker Elandon Roberts drilled running back Emari Demercado on a third-and-12 incompletion. That led to a 51-yard field goal by Matt Prater that tied the franchise record he set in 2021 with seven 50-yard-plus field goals in a season. He is 7-for-9 on those this year.

The two teams continued to trade third-down failures with each missing their first four. The tenor of the game changed in the second quarter when it appeared the Steelers would take a 10-3 lead.

Their first third-down conversion, an 8-yard completion on third-and-3, set them up at the Arizona 7-yard line. A pair of 2-yard runs by Najee Harris led to a Pickett run where he got close to the goal line, but was stopped just short by defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter. Most important was that Pickett left the game with an ankle injury and didn’t return.

Harris got the call on fourth down, but defensive lineman Kevin Strong, with some help from linebacker Jesse Luketa, kept him out of the end zone. The Steelers were 4-for-11 on third down and that 0-for-1 on fourth down in the game.

With an offense that had mustered only 26 yards on 16 plays to that point, no one could have expected what came next.

Dec 3, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Arizona Cardinals running back Michael Carter (22) runs between Pittsburgh Steelers cornerbacks Joey Porter, Jr. (24) and dLevi Wallace (29) during the second quarter at Acrisure Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

On third and-3 from the 8-yard line, Murray found wide-open tight end Elijah Higgins for 21 yards. Three plays later on third-and-6, it was running back Michael Carter scampering 19 yards. Another third-and-6 resulted in a 17-yard pass to McBride, whose light shined light on the drive. After his holding penalty set the Cardinals back, he got 12 yards on second-and-17 and 15 on third-and-5.

Two plays later, an apparent 5-yard touchdown to McBride was overturned on replay, so all Murray did was go to him again for the score on third-and goal and a 10-3 lead with 15 seconds remaining in the half.

Murray said of Trey McBride, “His confidence is through the roof. He’s become a matchup nightmare for whoever is on him. They’re going to put a safety on him; it’s tough for safeties to guard him. Super athletic. Sky’s the limit for Trey. I think for me and him to be able to keep playing with each other — yeah, just keep playing with him, and the better he’ll get.”

Trey McBride

In the 55-play, 99-yard drive that actually included 109 offensive yards, the Cardinals converted all five of their third downs and Murray was 4-for-4 for 58 yards on third down and 6-for-7 for 71 yards overall. All six completions were to tight ends with Geoff Swaim gaining one yard on the possession’s first play. McBride had four catches for 49 yards.

In the game, he finished with eight receptions on nine targets for 89 yards and tied the franchise record for receptions by a tight end with 56 set by Jackie Smith in 1967 and equaled by Zach Ertz two seasons ago. McBride’s 610 yards are the most since the 687 Smith totaled in 1970.

Trey McBride

The tight ends also accounted for 11 of Murray’s 13 completions in the game and 120 of his 145 yards. Injury-affected wide receiver Hollywood Brown was targeted three times and didn’t catch one.

Murray was exemplary on third down. After failing to convert on those first four third-down plays, the Cardinals were 10 for their next 12 to finish 10-for-17 in the game, including a third-down kneeldown that was the final snap. Murray completed 7-of-10 third-down passes for 88 yards, five conversions and a touchdown.

Also significant was at the beginning of the drive, already without two inside linebackers, Pittsburgh’s Elandon Roberts suffered a groin injury and missed the remainder of the game.

Said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, “I thought we struggled from a communications standpoint when (he) went down. We lost some significant communication and some glue there. And I thought it was reflective in our play.”

After the first weather delay at halftime, the Cardinals had their third and last three-and out of the game, but the Steelers shot themselves in the foot shortly afterward.

Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky couldn’t handle a low shotgun snap, and rookie defensive lineman Dante Stills recovered at the Steelers 21-yard line with help from lineman Roy Lopez. Murray had a key 9-yard run to the 12, and on third-and-goal at the 8, rookie cornerback Joey Porter Jr. interfered with wide receiver Greg Dortch in the end zone. It took Conner two tries, but he scored the touchown that gave the Cardinals a 17-3 lead right before the second long weather delay.

When play resumed, the Steelers drove to the Arizona 27-yard line, but a Boswell 45-yard field-goal attempt was wide right. The Cardinals mounted another drive that included a Murray 8-yard run on third-and-6 and a 19-yard play to Dortch on third-and-12. Three plays later, Murray hit wide receiver Rondale Moore for a 33-yard touchdown, but right guard Carter O’Donnell, who had entered the game five plays earlier when Will Hernandez was injured, was flagged for holding. Hernandez did return.

McBride got six yards back on third-and-15, but Gannon then made a crucial decision. Rather than have Prater attempt a 55-yard field goal, a Blake Gillikin punt was downed at the 4-yard line by wide receiver Dan Chisena, who was signed to the practice squad on Nov. 22 and elevated Saturday. The Steelers went three-and-out.

The Cardinals were then set up at the Pittsburgh 33-yard line after a Dortch 7-yard punt return and a facemask penalty on safety Miles Killebrew. The Steelers were penalized nine times for 77 yards in the game, while the Cardinals were 6-for-51.

Murray hit McBride for 16 yards and the Conner show began. At that point, he had 38 yards on 16 carries after rushing for only 17 yards at halftime on 10 attempts. Not for long. He had two 4-yard runs and then scored from the 9-yard line for a 24-3 lead.

Conner noted that before the touchdown play, “K1 said in the huddle, ‘I need you to get in the end zone on this run.’ We just muscled up. That’s what I told the offensive linemen in the huddle: ‘Just muscle up.’”

He said after the score got to 17-3, “At that point, knew it was going to be heavy on the run. Just keep that clock going.”

The Steelers scored a touchdown to cut the deficit to 24-10, but there was only 4:25 on the clock. After not trying an onside kick, Conner rambled 29 yards on first down and gained 10 and 11 yards to complete his outing.

Although nine of his attempts were for one yard or less and “totaled” muinus-4 yards, his other 16 gained 109 (6.8 average). He had 88 yards on 15 runs in the second half and 9-for-67 on the final two possessions.

Gannon said, “Just gave him the game ball. He was lights out. Honestly that’s a really good defense, and I thought that the O-line; early took some chances to get it going a little bit, but boy, he closed out the game. That’s how he always plays, though. But special for him coming back here, home. Glad for him to have a big-time day.”

Added Murray, “Something we wanted to do coming into this game was having a goal of getting him a lot of carries because he’s such a great player. He’s a great leader for this team. We know how much it means for him to come back home and be able to do his thing, so I was super excited for him.”

Wearing a Pitt Panthers T-shirt for his post-game press conference, Conner said, “Emotions ran high, but I was just taking it all in. Just accepting it all. Lotta love. Lotta love for this place.”

He distributed about 20 tickets, and said, “The love in the city was there. Everything about this place is special. I was a baby, University of Pittsburgh, 18 years old with a goal in mind of getting to the NFL. Not knowing how I was going to do it. Just trying to figure it out when I got here at Heinz Field or Acrisure (Stadium) now, just where it started. It’s a special energy in here for sure. It’s special, special.”

Dec 3, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Arizona Cardinals running back James Conner (6) makes his rounds greeting Pittsburgh Steelers coaches following their game at Acrisure Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Asked if he was able to renew acquaintances, Conner said, “Just everybody, man. Old teammates. Security throughout the building. The staff over there. My old coaches. Just told them how much I appreciate them all. They were huge for me in my journey, the lessons that I learned being a Steeler. So valuable. And I try to take them with me to this day. But I’ve got a lot of love for everybody out here.”

He added that after the game started, “I was locked in, but I heard a couple, ‘Let’s go J.C.’”

Finally, he concluded, “I had this vision of coming home and trying to play my best football and let God do the rest. He let us have a day.”

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com. Also, become a DIEHARD and use the promo code HOWARD

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