In 1st start, Steelers' James Conner breaks through as Le'Veon Bell's replacement

CLEVELAND -- James Conner gave Le'Veon Bell something to watch in Cleveland.

And watch Bell did, tweeting a monocle-wearing emoji after the game.

When asked on Twitter if Bell was "throwing shade" at his team, Bell said no. He'd just never seen a tie before.

Conner received more direct praise from his quarterback.

"[He] ran hard, caught the ball well, made plays for us," said Ben Roethlisberger. "I was proud of the way he played in his first game."

On a day when the Steelers struggled through miserable weather with six turnovers, Conner came through with the game-breaking performance his team wanted to see, with 192 total yards and two touchdowns in a 21-21 overtime tie with the Cleveland Browns.

"We feel like we're going to run the ball when we want to run the ball, so I know the mentality of the guys up front," said Conner. "I knew the lanes were going to be there today. I knew today was going to be a good day on the ground, just not enough to win.

"Talking with [offensive coordinator] coach Randy [Fichtner] throughout the week, I knew that was in his plan to feed me and have me out there most of the time."

Conner's 192 total yards were more yards than Bell -- who remains away from the team with an unsigned franchise tag worth $14.5 million -- had in any game last season.

Teammates mobbed Conner on his first-career touchdown, a 4-yard push through the right side with 11 minutes,19 seconds left in the second quarter. Conner's 22-yard scoring rush with 5:29 left in the third quarter was one of his 36 touches of the day, including five receptions for 57 yards.

Bell did not play Week 1 as part of his holdout and as a way to preserve long-term health, and the decision cost him $853,000 for this week of work.

The Steelers knew what that meant.

"We've got a little something to prove," guard David DeCastro said earlier in the week about facing questions without Bell.

Conner's big blemish -- a fumble with 7:44 left in the fourth to set up an easy Browns touchdown -- didn't stop the Steelers from giving Conner the ball six times on a late fourth-quarter drive. He added a 19-yard, one-handed reception in overtime and generally looked comfortable.

Conner said the team was encouraging after his costly fumble.

"I felt very comfortable out there. Pressure is always there, but you're either feeling pressure or applying pressure. We tried to apply pressure today. There were no nerves, just playing football."

It wasn't flashy, but Conner took the yards available, found the soft spots for dump-off catches and adequately protected Roethlisberger with blitz pickup. He passed the test necessary to quell concerns about the run-game adequacy without an All-Pro in the backfield.

Bell likely factored a potential Conner breakout into his decision to not sign his tender. But the Steelers wanted Conner to go off, and they talked him up all week. Although the Steelers knew Bell wouldn't be on the team bus on the way to Cleveland, they had every incentive to apply pressure to Bell with good play. A tie didn't help.

Whether Bell returns in Week 2 or Week 11, a 1-2 combo of Bell and Conner might just be a lot of fun.