The Pittsburgh Steelers have gone 6-1 since the bye week. James Conner has not been on the field for five of those wins, including the past three in a row. JuJu Smith-Schuster has also been sidelined over the course of the past three weeks as he continues to deal with a knee injury.
The third-year pair combined for roughly 3000 yards and 20 touchdowns between them in 2018, coming in a second-and third-round picks in 2017. They made the Pro Bowl together last season. In no small part due to injury, they are nowhere near making it this year.
But make no mistake, the Steelers, from the locker room to the coaching staff, are chomping at the bit to get them back on the field. Head coach Mike Tomlin was asked during his pre-game press conference yesterday how much this offense needs them right now, given that they have been winning with them on the sidelines.
That’s the answer.
At least for the long haul, though, he’s not wrong. The Steelers have been fortunate in recent weeks to get uncommon performances from some unlikely places, or at least performances that have historically been above the line of expectations for those who have been delivering them. Spoken in true Tomlin fashion.
Take Kerrith Whyte, for example. The rookie they plucked four weeks ago off of the Chicago Bears’ practice squad has pitched in over 100 yards on the ground and in the air over the last three games. Deon Cain has 62 yards on three catches in that same span, but he has also drawn three pass interference penalties that have been big plays.
James Washington really stepped up in Smith-Schuster’s absence, and Benny Snell on Conner’s. When these two Pro Bowlers do return, they should only add to the mix as they work their way back into the fold as the lead dogs in their respective packs.
Provided that they are able to continue to win while they are out, the team should benefit overall from their absence by having the opportunity to nurture and develop the growth of some of these young men who are throwing their hands in the pile on a weekly basis and making the plays that need to be made when they need to be made.
But we’re in crunch time now, and the Steelers still have to play the Buffalo Bills and the Baltimore Ravens. And then there’s a little thing called the postseason. It’s hard to imagine, even with as great as this defense has been, that they could make it very far without their Pro Bowl skill position guys.