The Pittsburgh Steelers have been going forward without their lead runner almost since the bye week, with James Conner having been sidelined with a shoulder injury that has cost him all but one quarter of play since the win over the Miami Dolphins in Week Eight.
But they have been finding their way over the course of the past three weeks, since he tried to come back the first time. That coincides with the return of Benny Snell from an injury of his own, and the emergency of Kerrith Whyte, who was signed off the Chicago Bears’ practice squad the week before.
With the news that Conner is expected to practice this week, Mike Tomlin was asked yesterday during his pre-game press conference how he would be worked in. “That’s a big if”, he said. “That’s something that we’re gonna sort out as we push through the week. I’m always a guy that’s one foot in front of the other. I don’t like the hypothetical discussions. I don’t like the contingency plans. It is a waste of time”.
In the past three games, the Steelers have rushed for a total of 423 yards, with at least 124 yards in each contest. They had only topped 100 yards on the ground twice in their first 10 games, including the last full game in which Conner played.
During that time, Snell has put up 202 yards and a touchdown on 53 attempts. Whyte has contributed with 94 rushing yards on just 14 rushes. Jaylen Samuels has also looked improve, including in pass protection, and they’re finding ways to manufacture yardage otherwise, such as Diontae Johnson on the end around. Of course, they got a 22-yard scramble from Devlin Hodges on Sunday among their 140 total rushing yards.
“We’re gonna work the guys that’ve been working, that we know are healthy, and as he proves his health to us, then we’ll consider the ways that we will utilize him”, Tomlin said of Conner. “Obviously, if he’s got a clean bill of health and he’s prepared, we know what James is capable of. But we’ll ponder those things as they’re presented to us in an effort not to waste time with hypotheticals”.
One area in which they might be able to use him is at the goal line. He rushed for 12 touchdowns in 13 games a year ago, and the vast majority of them were from inside the five-yard line. Pittsburgh has had one of the worst red zone and goal-to-go offenses in the league in 2019.