Carolina Panthers

Thursday gamechanger? Battle of inspirational comebacks, and 2 great football players

Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner, filling in for normal starter Le’Veon Bell, is one of three players in the NFL this season with at least 500 yards rushing and 375 yards receiving.
Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner, filling in for normal starter Le’Veon Bell, is one of three players in the NFL this season with at least 500 yards rushing and 375 yards receiving. AP

Each week the Carolina Panthers play in 2018, the Observer will choose a potential gamechanger — the player most likely to make a huge impact on the game. This week’s choice:

Linebacker Thomas Davis

Panthers lineman Dorian Johnson knows firsthand the sort of damage running back James Conner can do. After all, for the better part of four years as college teammates at Pittsburgh, Johnson was the man helping Conner do his wrecking.

“The O-line and him, we had a mutual respect for one another,” Johnson said Tuesday. “He knew we were gonna be there on our blocks, and we knew that if we got our blocks, he was going to make something out of it.”

Something else the Panthers reserve tackle knows well about his former college teammate?

That, well... he’s not quite the same player he was when both were starring for the Panthers.

TD
Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis (58) has overcome three torn ACL’s in the course of his career, and now will have to face off with dynamic Steelers running back James Conner, who has an inspirational story of his own. Ben McKeown AP

“In college he was a lot heavier. He was like 250, 260 or something. He was just running through guys,” Johnson said laughing. “I don’t know if he’s still doing that, but he’s a hard-nosed guy. Just gotta stay low on him.”

But Johnson, even in jest, is correct. James Conner the Pitt Panther, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma late in his junior season and recovered in time for his senior year, was a far different player than he is now as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting running back.

Different, that is — not less dangerous.

And now the burden of stopping him falls to a Panthers player who’s made his fair share of inspirational comebacks, from three torn ACL’s: linebacker Thomas Davis.

“He’s playing lights out right now,” Davis said of Conner. “He’s a guy who’s taking full advantage of the opportunity with Le’Veon (Bell) being out.

“He’s making everybody totally forget about Le’Veon around there, if you ask me.”

With Bell, the Steelers’ normal starter out indefinitely in a contract holdout, Conner has more than been up to the task for Pittsburgh. He’s rushed for 706 yards and nine touchdowns this season, adding another 379 yards and one more touchdown as a receiver. He, along with Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, is one of just three players in the NFL this season with at least 500 yards rushing and 375 yards receiving.

For how well Conner has played this year, though, he’s likely outgrown his old reserve role. He’s run for more than 100 yards in four straight games, catching at least four balls per game over that same stretch. His versatility as a runner and receiver rivals Bell’s own abilities, and his success has helped unlock the league’s No. 9 offense.

“Right now, they’ve found their stride with Conner,” Rivera said. “It’s the way he plays. He runs hard. Everything he does, he does hard. Runs routes, he’s not floating out there. The young man plays hard, and I think that’s a testament to his character as to what he went through as a young man in college and his full recovery, which has been a great thing.”

But Davis, now four games returned from a season-opening four-game suspension, plays perhaps harder than anyone else on this Panthers’ defense. He played 75 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in the win over Tampa, and as one of the team’s fastest linebackers, will have plenty of opportunities to meet Conner on the field.

The question is: Which one gets the upper hand on Thursday night?

“Pittsburgh usually plays their running backs the whole game. That’s something that we’ve noticed and we’ve watched,” Davis said. “So he’s going to be in there. We’ve just gotta be ready to go.”

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks

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