Pittsburgh Steelers

Steelers need a fully healthy James Conner down the stretch

If it wasn’t already clear, Tuesday’s LeVeon Bell deadline fully proves the Steelers need James Conner healthy down the stretch.

The Pittsburgh Steelers extended their winning streak to five with a 52-31 win over Carolina Panthers last Thursday night. But one negative coming out of the game was an injury, as running back James Conner entered concussion protocol and remains there as of Tuesday.

Head coach Mike Tomlin said Conner will have a chance to practice on Wednesday, do some physical work and get out of concussion protocol. If he can do so, Tomlin asserted Conner can “lay those discussions to bed.”

As Le’Veon Bell gets close to sitting out the whole season, Conner has stepped in ahead of what seemed to be an ideal timeline to replace Bell and has proven worthy. He’s third in the league in rushing with 771 yards, while averaging 4.7 yards per carry with 10 touchdowns on the ground. The latter mark is more touchdowns than Bell has ever had in a full season, and while he’s not quite on Bell’s level as a pass catcher, Conner has added 39 receptions for 387 yards through nine games this season.

When Conner left the game against the Panthers, rookie Jaylen Samuels stepped in and had five carries and four targets (three receptions) along with a receiving touchdown. The NC State product’s role could grow a little going forward, but he’s more of a versatile weapon than a 15-20-carry per game running back.

It has become clear Bell never intended to show up to the Steelers this year. Now, it will finally become an official reality on Tuesday afternoon. Conner has been an important player already, and having him healthy is now a necessity for the Steelers down the stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs.

Ramping up his physical activity on Wednesday will start the trend in either direction. But Conner seems sure to clear concussion protocol before the practice week ends, and there seems to be little concern about his status for Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

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The Steelers’ games against the Los Angeles Chargers (Week 13) and New England Patriots (Week 15) will have a big role in shaping the AFC playoff picture. So if there’s any real question about Conner’s readiness this week, making sure he’s fully ready for those December games has to become the priority.

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