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Steelers News: Running back by committee will be the plan until James Conner’s return

Time to check on the latest news surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers have seen better days than they are currently experiencing. The black-and-gold have dropped back-to-back games for the first time since 2016, after losing to the Broncos and Chargers in consecutive weeks. Now they turn their attention to another AFC West opponent, the Oakland Raiders, in Week 14.

Today in the Black-and-gold links article, we take a look at how the Steelers are forced to approach the upcoming Raiders game in Week 14 with a running back by committee approach. Without James Conner they will rely on a combination of Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels to keep defenses honest until Conner returns.

Let’s get to the news:

Steelers to use committee approach at RB without James Conner

By: Joe Rutter, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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 runner 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.

Jaylen Samuels ready for Steelers close-up with James Conner out

By: Jeremy Fowler, ESPN

The Steelers couldn’t pick a better time for a rookie running back to be “on the rise.”

Those are the words coach Mike Tomlin used to describe fifth-round pick Jaylen Samuels, whose pass-catching ability should pay off Sunday in Oakland as James Conner misses time because of an ankle sprain.

Maybe that rise coincides with Samuels’ weekly preparation, which leaves him feeling comfortable running with the first-team offense.

”I’ve always got to prepare the same way, because you never know what will happen,” said Samuels, who has 85 yards and two touchdowns on 19 touches, including seven catches for 54 yards. “I had to be 100 percent prepared like I was going to start. Keep doing the same thing I’ve been doing the last couple of weeks.”

Veteran Stevan Ridley is second among Steelers running backs in rushing with 56 yards in 18 carries, but since Week 10, Samuels has 24 offensive snaps to Ridley’s 10. When Conner left Sunday’s loss to the Chargers, Samuels wasted no time producing with two catches for 14 yards in the red zone, taking a pass over the middle for 10 yards.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said on his weekly radio show on 93.7 the Fan that Samuels was his second option over the middle, signaling he has trust in the young player. The two shared a moment after the game-tying score.

Samuels was a versatile hybrid back in college, and the Steelers were intrigued by his receiving ability. Whether he can become a consistent rushing threat is still uncertain, but he looks natural locating the ball in the open field.

”Do what I’ve been doing all my life, getting in open space, catching the ball,” Samuels said. “[Roethlisberger’s] one of the best. He’s smart. When you’re out there with him, you can’t do nothing wrong, really. You should feel confident to play fast. He makes you play fast.”

In 4th try, Ben Roethlisberger seeks 1st win in Oakland

By: Joe Rutter, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Venturing into the Black Hole has been nothing but a black cloud for the Pittsburgh Steelers since the Oakland Raiders returned to their home venue 23 years ago.

The Steelers are 0-3 at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum since last winning there in 1995, the year the Raiders returned home after ending their stay in Los Angeles.

With the Raiders departing again – this time for Las Vegas – the Steelers’ visit Sunday will represent the final time to end that streak by beating another lowly Raiders team in front of their rabid Black Hole fanbase.

“That’s what makes it fun,” said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has never won in Oakland. “You ask me about the venues and stuff and fans, it’s not an easy place to play.

“What an awesome challenge for us.”

That the Raiders sport a 2-10 record that is tied with San Francisco for the worst in the NFL means nothing in the historical context of the series. In the past three trips to Oakland, the Steelers lost to Raiders teams that finished the season with 4-12, 4-12 and 2-14 records.

Roethlisberger, for one, isn’t overlooking the Raiders’ record, citing the competitive game Oakland played against Kansas City in a 40-33 loss on Sunday.

“You see what they did against one of the best teams in football,” he said. “They fought them all the way to the end.”

With Roethlisberger at quarterback, the Steelers lost in Oakland during the 2006, 2012 and 2013 seasons. In two of those losses, he threw a combined 2 touchdown passes and six interceptions with 10 sacks. In the other game, a 34-31 loss in 2012, he had a 123.2 passer rating and passed for 384 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions with one sack.

Roethlisberger is looking forward to returning for one more chance to face the fans in the Black Hole.

“It’s cool if you respect sports and fans and venues,” he said. “It’s a neat one.”

What’s not so neat is the Steelers’ record when they venture into the Mountain and Pacific time zones. Since Mike Tomlin became head coach in 2007, the Steelers are 3-8 when visiting those time zones, plus two more losses in Denver in the postseason.

The Steelers are two weeks removed from a 24-17 loss at Mile High Stadium, and a 2015 victory at San Diego represents their only victory in the past six games played in those time zones since 2011.

Tomlin downplayed travel and any potential jet lag as reasons for the team’s recent history when traveling beyond the Central time zone.

“My concern is this group this week in preparation for the group that they employ, that’s my focus,” he said. “I acknowledge the history … but it’s not a major component of logistical preparation and things of that nature for us as we get ready for this game. It’s just not.”