Steelers to use committee approach at RB without James Conner
When Le’Veon Bell skipped the November deadline to return to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the worst-case scenario was a significant injury to running back James Conner.
Those fears became reality Tuesday when coach Mike Tomlin ruled out Conner from playing Sunday against the Oakland Raiders because of an ankle sprain.
Tomlin’s declaration came two days after Conner was assisted off the field in the fourth quarter of a 33-30 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. The early announcement is an indication the severity of Conner’s injury might measure his return in weeks instead of days.
On Sunday, Tomlin labeled the injury as a lower leg contusion, but at his weekly news conference, he said it was “a little bit more significant that we initially thought.”
Tomlin said he “didn’t know” whether Conner suffered a potentially more serious high-ankle sprain.
Either way, the Steelers will enter their final quarter of games without the second-year back who ranks fifth in the NFL in rushing yards (909) and yards from scrimmage (1,376). After Oakland, the Steelers face New England, New Orleans and Cincinnati to close the regular season.
The Steelers (7-4-1) will try to win at Oakland (2-10) for the first time since 1995 with a running back group consisting of veteran Stevan Ridley, rookie fifth-rounder Jaylen Samuels and second-year runer Trey Edmunds, who was promoted from the practice squad Tuesday.
Tomlin said he will consider using a committee approach to replace Conner.
“That is our intentions as we sit here,” he said. “We have a preparation week ahead of us, and sometimes the division of labor is revealed to you through that work. We have a great deal of confidence in Ridley. We’ve got a great deal of confidence in Jaylen, particularly of late. He’s a guy who has been on the rise in recent weeks.”
A converted tight end/fullback, Samuels scored his second career NFL touchdown after Conner exited with 4 minutes, 45 seconds remaining Sunday. Samuels caught back-to-back passes, the second going for a 10-yard touchdown that tied the score 30-30. For the season, Samuels has 12 carries for 31 yards and seven catches for 54 yards and two scores. He has served as Conner’s backup in recent weeks. Ridley had the job until he fumbled in a midseason win over the Cleveland Browns.
At N.C. State, Samuels never had more than 12 carries in a game in his four seasons. His high for a season was 78 carries when he was a senior.
A sixth-year veteran, Ridley, 29, was signed by the Steelers last year when Conner had season-ending knee surgery with two regular-season games remaining. Since his fumble against Cleveland, Ridley has gotten into just one of the past five games, and he hasn’t played in the past three despite being active on game day.
Six years removed from a 1,263-yard rushing season with New England, Ridley has 18 carries for 56 yards and three catches for 18 yards this season. He hasn’t been a feature running back since 2013.
“We were thoughtful about Ridley’s inclusion in our group,” Tomlin said. “To have a veteran backup like that, a guy who has been in some circumstances, who has been in some playoff football, etc.”
Edmunds, the older brother of first-round pick Terrell Edmunds, was signed to the practice squad after the New Orleans Saints released him in September. In 2017, Edmunds had nine carries for 48 yards and a touchdown with the Saints.
Edmunds has worked with the scout team during practices this season.
Conner’s injury could allow the Steelers to continue their pass-heavy trend in recent weeks despite back-to-back losses to the Denver Broncos and Chargers. Ben Roethlisberger has averaged 49.3 pass attempts in the past three weeks, and Conner has averaged 12.5 carries in the four games since he amassed four consecutive 100-yard rushing performances.
“I’m not concerned about it,” Tomlin said when asked about the recent pass-run ratio. “Sometimes, we’re going to be run-heavy. Sometimes we’re going to be pass-heavy. At the end of the day, we better be a group that is capable of attacking in both and provide that type of balance, if you want to call it balance.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.