Tomlin: Conner, Smith-Schuster could return


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James Conner. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

The Steelers aren't lacking in star power. Most of it just happens to be on the defensive side of the ball. Or worse, in the training room -- at least on the offensive side of the ball.

That could change Sunday, however, when the Steelers (8-5) host the Bills (9-4) at Heinz Field in a critical game for both teams' playoff chances. Running back James Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster both have a good shot to return for the Steelers in the game, which pits the two teams sitting in the two Wildcard spots in the AFC.

When asked how much his offense could use the two Pro Bowl skill players, Mike Tomlin simply replied, "A lot."

But how they're used could be the tricky part, at least for Conner.

Smith-Schuster's role in the offense is set. The team's No. 1 receiver has missed the past three games with a sprained knee suffered in the first half of a 21-7 loss Nov. 14 at Cleveland. But because the Steelers play multiple receivers at the same time, working Smith-Schuster back into the lineup isn't an issue.

But with Conner out in five of the past six games -- including the past three -- the Steelers have won all five of those games in which their top running back has been out, with other backs emerging in different roles.

The Steelers have cobbled together a running game with rookies Benny Snell and Kerrith Whyte, second-year player Jaylen Samuels and former practice squad player Trey Edmunds.

All four touched the ball on the Steelers' opening possession against the Cardinals. Snell and Whyte finished the game with 41 rushing yards each, while Samuels added 16. Samuels caught two passes for 18 yards, Whyte one for nine and Edmunds one for seven.

Snell has been the primary ballcarrier in the three games in which he has been back from a knee injury that forced him to miss three games. He's carried the ball 52 times for 202 yards and a touchdown.

"We've seen a lot of him over the last month or so," Tomlin said of Snell. "He's showing a run demeanor that's attractive, an ability to show feature runner-type characteristics and mentality. It's been good."

Conner had missed the Steelers' two games prior to that game in Cleveland after suffering a shoulder injury on his final carry of the team's win over the Dolphins Oct. 28, meaning he's been limited to five carries for 10 yards in the past six weeks.

Tomlin was non-committal when asked how he would split up backfield snaps if Conner returns against the Bills.

"That's a big if, and it's something we'll sort out as we push through the week," Tomlin said. "I'm always a guy that's one foot in front of the other. I don't like hypothetical discussions. I don't like contingency plans. It's a waste of time. We're going to work the guys that have been working and healthy. As he proves his health to us, we'll consider the ways we would utilize him. Obviously, if he's got a clean bill of health, 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."

The Steelers have run the ball more -- and more effectively -- in the past three games, rushing for more than 100 yards in each of those wins and averaging 141 yards per game. That's the best three-game average for the team since they ran through the Colts, Giants and Bills in 2016, Nov. 24 through Dec. 11.

But it's also no coincidence. The Steelers have averaged 35 carries per game over the past three games. In their previous 10, they rushed the ball just over 22 times per game.

That's limited rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges to no more than 21 throws in any one of his starts. But the Steelers also have gotten big plays out of second-year receiver James Washington and rookie Diontae Johnson in back-to-back weeks. Washington had four receptions for 111 yards and a touchdown two weeks ago in a win over the Browns, while Johnson had six catches for 60 yards and a score last Sunday in a win at Arizona.

"I think you can speak to the young guys emerging and making the necessary plays in those significant moments, and it's good that it's starting to come from multiple places," Tomlin said. "A week ago, we were standing here and talking about James Washington rising up and making the necessary plays for us at the receiver position. The last game, Dionate did similar things.

"So it's back-to-back weeks where we're talking about young wide receivers rising up and making significant plays. It's important for us. It's also important for us that it's coming from different places."

It would be nice, however, to be at full strength, or as close to it as the Steelers can be without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, as the team battles for a postseason spot.

Getting Conner and/or Smith-Schuster back would be a step in that direction. If it happens.

"I don't know what their anticipated practice participation is for tomorrow, but those guys are expected to participate in practice in some capacity, and sooner rather than later in the week," Tomlin said. "We'll look at the quality of their work and the ramifications of the aftermath of that work in terms of talking about their availability."


Conner, if healthy, at least offers the Steelers the opportunity to not tip their hand to their intentions. As things currently stand, opposing defenses know if Snell or Whyte are on the field, they're likely running the ball. If it's Samuels, he's a receiver. And if it's Edmunds, he's almost always there for pass protection.

Conner is the team's most well-rounded back. He can do all of those things on any given play, making the Steelers offense less predictable. And with Samuels questionable to play this week because of a groin injury, the Steelers could certainly use Conner's receiving skills.

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