PITTSBURGH - James Conner takes exception to any depiction that his touchdown celebration with Pittsburgh Steelers offensive linemen was directed at Le'Veon Bell, who remains absent from the team with an unsigned franchise tag.
Conner quickly turned to hug his offensive linemen after his first NFL touchdown, a 4-yard run through the right side during Sunday's 21-21 overtime tie with the Cleveland Browns.
"(The media) made it like I was throwing shade or something on Le'Veon because I celebrated with my linemen -- I never understood that," said Conner, who produced 192 total yards on 36 touches. "They made that up. I scored my first NFL touchdown untouched, so you don't do that often as a running back. As soon as I scored, I went back, turned, celebrated with them. I was just showing love."
It's uncertain which criticism turned off Conner, but author and former NFL offensive linemen Geoff Schwartz called the celebration "extremely over the top" in a tweet on Sunday.
Conner said he spoke to Bell after the game but wouldn't divulge the details of that conversation.
With Bell out of the picture, Conner earned the No. 1 running back job with a strong preseason. He said his connection with his line came out in that moment.
"If you don't have a connection with your offensive linemen, that's not good," Conner said. "They were happy for me. They saw me, everything I was going through, and I'm guessing it was special for them to be on the field with me at the same time. I didn't like that when the media did that, saying I was being funny celebrating (like that)."
Teammates were inspired by Conner's story at Pitt, where he overcame Hodgkin's Lymphoma and became a third-round draft pick.
"I think (overcoming cancer) is something not a lot of NFL players can say they've done," left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said. "[Eric] Berry is the only [one] probably that comes to mind, but to have that determination to come back and finish your college years, get drafted to the team where you're from, and then go out [to] Cleveland, which is not too far from wherever he's from and do as well as he did (Sunday) -- it's something that everybody wants to see. I wish we could have come up with a victory, so he would've probably felt better about it."
Coach Mike Tomlin said the Steelers will keep feeding Conner, who rushed the ball 23 times in the second half and overtime of the Cleveland game.
"He gets better with use," he said.