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Steelers coach Mike Tomlin calls on James Conner to step up special teams play

Joe Rutter
| Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, 1:45 p.m.
Steelers running back James Conner breaks loose during a fourth-quarter run against the Falcons on Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back James Conner breaks loose during a fourth-quarter run against the Falcons on Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger talk during practice Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017, at St. Vincent.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger talk during practice Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017, at St. Vincent.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has a smile for receiver Antonio Brown during practice Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017, at St. Vincent.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has a smile for receiver Antonio Brown during practice Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017, at St. Vincent.
Steelers running back James Conner looks to stiff-arm the  Falcons' Kemal Ishmael in the fourth quarter Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017, at Heinz Field. Connor rushed for a game-high 98 yards.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back James Conner looks to stiff-arm the Falcons' Kemal Ishmael in the fourth quarter Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017, at Heinz Field. Connor rushed for a game-high 98 yards.

Mike Tomlin was talking about expectations he has for his young players Thursday when, unsolicited, he brought up James Conner.

The Steelers coach raved about Conner rushing for 98 yards against the Atlanta Falcons. Then, he turned to special teams and wasn't as complimentary.

“He was JV as a special teams performer,” Tomlin said. “I'm challenging him in a big way.”

Conner played just two snaps on special teams — both on the kickoff coverage unit — against the Falcons. Tomlin wants to see more from the former Pitt running back, and that apparently will happen Saturday in the third preseason game when the Steelers play the Indianapolis Colts at Heinz Field.

Conner said he is scheduled to play on four units: kickoff coverage and return, and punt coverage and return.

“We expect him to give us special contributions in the special teams game when he's not playing running back,” Tomlin said. “It's reasonable to expect that.”

Although Conner didn't play special teams at Pitt, the Steelers were enticed about his previous college experience on defense to think he could excel on coverage and return units in the NFL.

“They expressed that to me,” Conner said. “Obviously, we have Le'Veon Bell, so if I want to contribute to this team it's going to have to be on special teams. I'm looking forward to it.”

Conner was slowed in the offseason by a hamstring injury, then he hurt his shoulder in the first padded practice of training camp. He didn't play in the preseason opener but said he is “getting familiar” with playing special teams.

As for Tomlin's challenge, consider it accepted.

“It's all football still,” Conner said. “I'm a football player, so I believe once I get down the mental part of it, the skills and physical side of it I'll be good with.”

Ben, Brown to play

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and James Harrison will see their first playing time of the preseason against the Colts. How long they remain in the game, however, is etched in pencil, not pen.

Tomlin will analyze game situations to determine when to replace his starters against the Colts.

“We'll play that by ear, but we are committed to playing our first wave and getting a good sense of their overall readiness and then we'll work from there,” he said.

Last year, when Roethlisberger made his preseason debut in the third week of games, he played two series, each of which resulted in a touchdown.

Time running out

With two preseason games remaining, Tomlin reminded that opportunities to earn roster spots, playing time or starting jobs are dwindling.

“The sand is running through the hour glass, so guys are going to have to make a move and state a case for themselves,” he said. “They better get busy if they haven't already. There's a certain urgency this week.”

Cornerback Cameron Sutton, the third-round pick who hasn't played because of a hamstring injury, also could make his preseason debut. Injuries to Sutton and Senquez Golson led the Steelers to trade for Washington Redskins backup cornerback Dashaun Phillips.

“We haven't seen enough of Cam Sutton and, obviously, it's a big week for him,” Tomlin said. “I'm also excited about betting the new guy in the fold and seeing what he's capable of in a short amount of time.”

Sutton practiced Wednesday and Thursday but likely doesn't have enough playing opportunities to be more than a backup entering the season.

“It's not frustrating because I'm still around the ball,” Sutton said. “I've got a great group of guys around me and keeping me encouraged, uplifted.”

Debut for Jones, too

Landry Jones, who did not play in the first two preseason games because of an abdominal strain, is expected to be the first quarterback off the bench against the Colts.

Jones went through full practices Wednesday and Thursday for the first time since his injury in the first week of camp.

“I feel I can go full speed,” Jones said. “The thing with any injury is going out there and cutting it loose.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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