The Pittsburgh Steelers were hoping that Week 17 would be a meaningless game for them, and it would have been—if the results from this past week had been reversed. The division would have been theirs had they beaten the New Orleans Saints—which they nearly did—and the Baltimore Ravens lost to the Los Angeles Chargers.
Instead, they not only failed to lock up the AFC North, they have put themselves on the brink of elimination and now require a win out of the Cleveland Browns to take down to Ravens. And they must win their own game, no guarantee any week even if it is against a battered Cincinnati Bengals team.
Because Sunday’s game is a must-win, there will be added urgency for James Conner to do everything he can to try to make it back from a high ankle sprain after missing the past three weeks. Of course if he can’t play, he can’t play, but had circumstances been otherwise and the game not been important, he surely would have been held out.
Interestingly enough, the area in which Conner has been missed most is in pass protection, something that he struggled with as a rookie but has done very well for the most part as a starter in 2018. Jaylen Samuels has taken about 90 percent of the running back snaps in his absence and has been responsible for a number of pressures, including sacks.
Stevan Ridley has never been a third-down-type back at any point in his career, and after yet another huge, costly fumble, there’s a good chance he won’t even play in the finale. The team may even decide to play Trey Edmunds over him.
Through the first 12 weeks of the season, Conner was one of the top running backs in the league. He rushed for 909 yards on 201 attempts with 12 rushing touchdowns, while also adding another 467 yards on 52 receptions and one touchdown through the air. The lone blemish, coincidentally, had been some fumbling.
With their season on the line, obviously, they can’t take even the Bengals, decimated as their starting lineup is due to injury, for granted. That’s pretty much what they did against the Oakland Raiders a few weeks back and it cost them a game that may well result in them missing the postseason.
We will know more later today as Head Coach Mike Tomlin holds his regularly scheduled pre-game press conference. Outside of Conner, the team is healthy right now, Tomlin only noting a foot injury for Vince Williams in the last game.
Sunday could very well be the last game for the Steelers for the 2018 season, and will certainly be if they don’t win. They need help, but they can only influence that which they control, and that is beating the Bengals. Getting Conner back would be a huge help, but it’s all up to how his ankle responds.