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Steelers News: Don’t close the book on James Conner’s 2018 season just yet

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

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-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 despite the frustrations many are feeling currently with the injury to running back James Conner, they should remember his season isn’t over. In other words, you shouldn’t close the door on Conner’s 2018 storybook season, there is plenty left to be written.

Let’s get to the news:

James Conner still has time to finish storybook season

By: Jeremy Fowler, ESPN

Pittsburgh Steelers players knew little about James Conner’s sprained ankle other than he was rehabbing vigorously somewhere inside the team facility Wednesday. Conner wasn’t visible during practice or the open locker room, offering up nothing more than prayer and half-smile emojis on twitter.

The one certainty is Conner will not play Sunday at Oakland, where Pittsburgh has lost three straight.

But Conner’s teammates want to see the running back finish the job as early as Week 15 in a hotly anticipated clash with the New England Patriots. They’ve appreciated the way Conner navigated the spotlight in Le’Veon Bell’s absence on the way to 909 rushing yards (fifth in the NFL) and 12 rushing touchdowns (tied for second).

As of midweek, Conner was fifth in overall Pro Bowl voting.

”Who wouldn’t love this story? Who wouldn’t want him to succeed?” guard Ramon Foster said.

Foster was glad the offense could focus on Conner once it became clear Bell would not report by the Week 11 deadline. Since then, though, Conner, the AFC Offensive Player of the Month in October, has dealt with his share of adversity on the field. He dropped two key late-game passes in Jacksonville, followed by a fumble in a loss to Denver that left him visibly frustrated in the postgame locker room.

The miscues haven’t affected the Steelers’ faith in Conner, who teammate Ben Roethlisberger says hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down after 253 touches.

”He stayed quiet, he let his play speak for itself,” Foster said. “More than anything, it just showed his confidence is everything he felt that he was. He showed what kind of player he was. It was like, ‘Oh, you don’t believe me? I’m going to do it again.’ You saw it in his face, in his actions.”

At least for this week, Conner’s running back mates plan to hold him down. Rookie Jaylen Samuels and eight-year veteran Stevan Ridley are expected to share carries, with Samuels getting the start.

”Three-0 is down, so everybody has to do their part so we can carry this load,” Ridley said.

The Steelers pass the ball 67.31 percent of the time, tops in the NFL, which means tailbacks must be ready to hit the hole and catch passes.

Conner plays that versatile role well, ripping off nine rushes of 20-plus yards (tied for fourth in the league) along with 52 receptions. He has improved as a pass-blocker. The Steelers will need it for back-to-back matchups with the Patriots and New Orleans Saints in an effort to clinch a home playoff game.

Carter’s Classroom: Third-down success depends almost entirely on Ben

By: Chris Carter, DKPittsburghSports

After going 1-2 in their past three games, the Steelers have multiple areas to address. I focused this week’s War Room on coverage issues with the Chargers’ Keenan Allen, but equally troubling about their 33-30 loss Sunday at Heinz Field was their showing on third down, converting 3 of 10 and continuing a trend in their losses.

A hard look at the Xs and Os reveals some answers as to how they can improve:

The Steelers rank seventh in the NFL in third-down offense, which has contributed to the offense overall ranking fourth in both yards and points per game. But take a look at the night-and-day fluctuation on third downs during their wins and losses to see how big a factor it’s become:

Their 53.4 percent success rate in their wins would rank the highest by far in the NFL, as the Buccaneers have the best percentage with 49.3. But their 32.3 success rate in their four losses and one tie would rank them 29th between the Dolphins and Bills.

What’s telling is that the average distance of third downs in their wins and losses is roughly a single yard. Meaning the difference in success isn’t because they’re creating shorter third down situations, but more because of execution on the third-down plays.

That’s why I looked closer at playcalling on third downs and their results. The average distance to go on third down run plays being less than three yards showed the importance of being able to win through the air. From the 22 run plays the Steelers have called on third down, eleven have come when they only needed one yard to gain.

This means the Steelers need to attack through the air to convert the average range of 6-7 yards to go on third downs. The Steelers have hit a slump the past three weeks when passing on third downs, converting only 22.2 percent against the Jaguars, 30.7 percent against the Broncos and 30 percent against the Chargers.

Much of that comes from Ben Roethlisberger being able to recognize and exploit each defense he faces. We covered how defenses are adjusting to the Steelers last week and how that involved disguised defensive schemes.

(To read more, click the link in the headline...)

Trey Edmunds ready to help Steelers in backfield or on special teams

By: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Staff

Trey Edmunds was activated from the Pittsburgh Steelers’ practice squad to add depth at running back in the wake of James Conner’s ankle sprain that will keep him from playing Sunday in Oakland.

Edmunds’ promotion also coincided with the Steelers giving up a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown in their most recent game, and that leak on special teams is where the second-year running back could make his biggest impact this weekend.

Edmunds played primarily on special teams last season when he appeared in all 16 games with the New Orleans Saints.

“I was a four core guy,” Edmunds said, referring to punt and kickoff returns and coverage units. “I learned each one of those special teams. I feel I have some good assets in each one of them. I just have to fine tune each one of them.”

Coach Mike Tomlin indicated that the 6-foot-2, 223-pound Edmunds, the older brother of rookie safety Terrell Edmunds, will get his playing time on those units more than in the backfield. Rookie Jaylen Samuels and veteran Stevan Ridley are the first two options to replace Conner.

“I know he earned his stripes in New Orleans in that capacity, so forget what he’s able to provide us a runner,” Tomlin said. “This is a guy who is going to be uniform that has a resume that is centered around some special teams contributions. And he’ll be given an opportunity there, first and foremost, but I haven’t been displeased with what I’ve seen from him as a runner.”

Edmunds, who also has experience as a kick returner, appeared in one game with the Saints as a running back, and he had nine carries for 48 yards that included a 41-yard touchdown run. The Saints used Edmunds some at fullback, but he’s moved back to his natural tailback position while playing on the Steelers scout teams this season.

“I like to think I have a mix of power and speed, and I try to counteract off each other using both of those,” Edmunds said. “I guess it depends on the situation and where the defender is.”