Steelers’ James Conner makes no guarantees but is ‘very confident’ about returning vs. Browns
By NFL rules, teams that play Thursday night must submit an injury report for the previous three days — even on ones when there is no practice.
Such was the case Monday for the Pittsburgh Steelers. As is his custom, coach Mike Tomlin gave his players the day off as reward for a 17-12 victory against the Los Angeles Rams that represented the team’s fourth win in a row.
On the injury report Tomlin filed with the league, he listed running back James Conner as a full participant. A few hours earlier, at his weekly news conference, Tomlin said if the Steelers had practiced, Conner would have tested the shoulder that he hurt against the Miami Dolphins, an injury that kept him off the field for two games.
A “hypothetical work day,” Tomlin called it.
It was the first indication Conner will return Thursday night when the Steelers (5-4) face the Cleveland Browns (3-6) at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Conner also confirmed he is ready to take part in an official practice, which will take place Tuesday at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
“I’m making a lot of progress on it,” Conner said Monday afternoon. “I think I’ll be good to go, but I’m not making any guarantees. As of right now, I’m feeling good and things are looking very confident for me playing on Thursday.”
The Steelers won both games Conner missed, but it was hardly due to the team’s ability to run the football without him. Aside from a 45-yard burst by Terrell Edmunds early against the Indianapolis Colts, the Steelers gained 87 yards on 51 attempts the past two weeks, a paltry 1.7 yards per carry.
Jaylen Samuels, who has started both games in Conner’s absence, gained 39 yards on 22 carries in the wins.
“We were winning the games without the running game,” Conner said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t need it, because we definitely do, and I hope I can contribute to it.”
Conner was a limited practice participant last Wednesday when the Steelers began preparations for the Rams. Conner then sat out the next two days, but did not characterize his inability to practice as a setback.
“It was a trial to see how I felt,” he said. “I wanted to be out there with the guys again, be around football, going through walk-throughs and catch some passes. I kind of knew where I was at, but I wanted to get out there for a little trial.”
Conner’s return might not be the only one that could provide a jolt to the running game. Tomlin said left guard Ramon Foster, who was listed as “limited” on the official injury report Monday, could play against the Browns after missing the past two games with a concussion.
Without Foster, the Steelers used B.J. Finney at left guard against Indianapolis, then shuffled the line against Los Angeles, with Matt Feiler moving from right tackle to left guard and Chuks Okorafor making his second career start at right guard.
Tomlin wouldn’t commit to using the same offensive configuration if Foster can’t return, citing the reason the Steelers switched Feiler to guard was so the line could have three tackles on the field to block two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.
“We’ll play it by ear and do the best we can in terms of making adjustments,” Tomlin said.
Conner leads the Steelers with 380 yards and four rushing touchdowns, but his 3.9 yards per carry is a half yard lower than his career average entering the season. His only 100-yard game this year came in the game in which he was injured when he totaled 145 yards against the Dolphins.
The Steelers will head into Cleveland with the No. 27 ranked rushing offense, which is averaging 83.2 yards per game and 3.5 per carry. The ineffectiveness can be partially attributed to injuries to all three running backs on the season-opening roster — Conner, Samuels and rookie Benny Snell — at various stages, plus the absence of fullback Roosevelt Nix for six games because of knee injuries.
“Continuity is the type of environment that really produces consistency, and we haven’t had a lot of that,” Tomlin said. “Not that it’s an excuse. We’re capable of being better than what we displayed to this point, but I’d be naive if I didn’t say the availability of some of the guys we’ve talked about hadn’t been a component of our performance, or lack thereof.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .