The Pittsburgh Steelers have been missing James Conner for the three weeks that he has had to sit out due to a high ankle sprain that has proven more of an issue than was initially appreciated. While Jaylen Samuels had a great game on the ground against the New England Patriots, even in that game his work in pass protection was suspect from an assignment standpoint.
Conner was able to be a full participant in practice yesterday, however, for the first time since his injury. All he would tell reporters after practice, repeatedly, was that “it’s getting better”, giving a nice big grin each time he gave the answer.
It shouldn’t take us long to find out how much better it’s doing. If he is able to participate fully again today, then it’s probably safe to say that he should be on track to return this Sunday, in what will possibly be his final game of his first year as a starter.
Having already been named to the Pro Bowl, Conner enters the final week of the season with 909 rushing yards on 201 carries, averaging the same 4.5 yards per carry that he did during his rookie season in limited work. He leads the AFC with 12 rushing touchdowns.
He has rushed for over 100 yards in five games this year, and that included 111 yards on the ground with two touchdowns in his first meeting against the Cincinnati Bengals this year, so if he is able to return then it’s certainly well within the realm of possibility that Conner could hit 1000 rushing yards on the season.
He also stands a fair chance of reaching 500 yards through the air. He has caught 52 passes so far through 12 games played for 467 yards, so if he can gain 32 yards on receptions—which he has done seven times already—that is another landmark he can it.
But it all depends on how his ankle responds today from yesterday’s exertion. Even though it’s a critical game with the Steelers’ season on the line, don’t expect the team to try to put him out on the field if he isn’t ready yet.
The Steelers have been throwing the ball around even more without Conner in the lineup over the course of the past three weeks, but arguably the biggest issue the team has had, at least in terms of the impact that an individual play can have, has been his absence in pass protection, something that I already wrote about earlier this week.
It also doesn’t help when your running back fumbles, but of course Conner has had that issue this year as well with four on the season on a little over 250 touches.