James Conner won't make any promises, but he is optimistic about playing in Thursday night's game in Cleveland against the Browns. Conner, who rushed for 281 yards and four touchdowns in two games against the Browns in 2018, has missed Pittsburgh's last two games with a shoulder injury.
Both Conner and head coach Mike Tomlin spoke about Conner's possible availability for Thursday night's game. Tomlin said that Conner would have been a full participant had the Steelers practiced on Monday.
"It's a hypothetical work day and so there's some angst there," Tomlin said, via ESPN's Brooke Pryor. "We feel comfortable about his ability to be available to us as we do (offensive lineman) Ramon Foster, but we have to get through the week in that regard."
After a slow start to the season, Conner, a Pro Bowler last season after amassing 1,470 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns in 13 games, was named the AFC's Offensive Player of the Week after rushing for 145 yards and a score in Pittsburgh's Week 8 win over Miami. Conner sustained his injury in the final moments of that game, however, and was forced to watch the Steelers' last two games -- victories over the Colts and Rams -- from the sideline. For the season, Conner has 380 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns, with 236 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns.
"I'm making a lot of progress on it, and I think I'll be good to go," Conner said of his injury. "I can't make no guarantees, but as of right now, I'm feeling very good and things are feeling very confident for me playing on Thursday."
With Conner and rookie running back Benny Snell (knee) on the mend, the Steelers have relied on Jaylen Samuels and Trey Edmunds over the last two weeks. Edmunds, the older brother of Steelers strong safety Terrell Edmunds, rushed for 72 yards in Pittsburgh's win over Indianapolis. He recorded an interception on special teams in Sunday's 17-12 win over the Rams. While Samuels, a fifth round pick in the 2018 draft, has not had much success running the ball season, his 13 receptions against the Colts played a key role in Pittsburgh's 26-24 victory.
The Steelers' rushing attack ranks just 27th in the NFL through nine games (they were 31st in rushing despite Conner's success in 2018). They'll face a Browns run defense Thursday that has allowed the sixth most rushing yards in the NFL. Cleveland is also 28th in the NFL in average yards per carry allowed (4.9).
Conner, a third round pick in 2017, enjoyed two big games against the Browns in 2018, his first year as a starter after filling in for former Steeler and current Jet, Le'Veon Bell. In his first game as a starter, Conner rushed for 135 yard and two touchdowns and also caught six passes for 57 yards. But his critical fourth quarter fumble, with Pittsburgh leading 21-7 in Cleveland, contributed to the Steelers' eventual Week 1 tie after the Browns scored two late touchdowns to force overtime.
Conner avoided a similar setback against the Browns in Week 8 of the 2018 season, rushing for 146 yards and two scores while catching six passes for 66 yards in Pittsburgh's 33-18 victory. The win increased Pittsburgh's unbeaten streak against Cleveland to eight games dating back to the 2015 season.
While Conner will likely be back for Thursday night's game, fullback Rosie Nix, a Pro Bowler in 2017 who made a significant impact during Pittsburgh's win over Miami, will likely miss Thursday night's game as he continues to deal with a knee injury. Nix's absence could hinder what Conner will be able to do against Cleveland's run defense, as the Steelers do not have another fullback on their 53-man roster. Sutton Smith, a rookie linebacker that was added back onto Pittsburgh's 53-man roster on Tuesday, received practice reps at fullback during spring/summer practices and could be used in that capacity on Thursday night.
Thursday night's game in significant for both teams. While the 5-4 Steelers need a win to remain on the inside track of the AFC playoff picture, the Browns, 3-6 following Sunday's win over the Bills, have no margin for error for any shot at making the playoffs for the first time since 2002.