Less than 24 hours away from their crucial AFC showdown against the New England Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers have downgraded star running back James Conner to ‘doubtful.’
In a game that pits the fifth and sixth-ranked offenses in the NFL against one another, it’s fair to wonder which team has the clear advantage.
The New England Patriots have the greatest quarterback of all time, arguably the greatest tight end of all time, a stable of powerful running backs, and a talented receiving corps led by the rejuvenated Josh Gordon.
Not to be outdone, the Pittsburgh Steelers have a Hall of Fame quarterback of their own, arguably the best wide receiver in the game today, twin threats at tight end, and a No. 2 wideout that would probably be a No. 1 on just about half the other teams in the league.
The only thing they don’t have?
James Conner… or at least so it seems.
If Conner does end up missing tomorrow’s tilt against the Pats, it puts all the more pressure on Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner to keep his attack from becoming one-dimensional. Conner is a Swiss army knife of a player who can stay on the field for every down. He’s every bit as capable powering his way between the tackles as he is being motioned outside and catching the ball in space.
Rookie Jaylen Samuels and former Patriot Stevan Ridley are now the most-likely beneficiaries of Conner’s ankle sprain; each could receive 10-12 carries or more, depending on game flow. The Steelers would of course love nothing more than to exploit New England’s soft run defense and pound the ball all day – the only proven formula for keeping Tom Brady and the lethal Patriot offense off the field.
Easier said than done though, especially without Conner. Neither Samuels nor Ridley will strike the same kind of fear in Belichick’s defense that Conner would have. Accordingly, Belichick may elect to play more often in nickel and dime packages than he would have if Conner was healthy, and dare the Steelers to try and run the ball successfully with their backups.
Unless one or both of those backups steps up to the challenge, the Steelers could be in for a long and miserable day trying to go point-for-point with the Patriots.