Steelers’ James Conner eyes return against Browns

PITTSBURGH — After missing two weeks with a shoulder injury, Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner expects to be back for Thursday night’s game in Cleveland.

“I’m making a lot of progress on it, and I think I’ll be good to go,” Conner said. “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.”

The Steelers run game pieced together with Jaylen Samuels and two former practice squad backs in Trey Edmunds and Tony Brooks-James desperately needs Conner to return. Against the Rams, the team averaged a paltry 1.6 yards per carry. A week earlier, it was marginally better at 3.6 yards per carry.

“We’ve been playing versus good defenses,” Conner said. “I just want to contribute to the run game when I get back. Mason played good. We won the games without the run game. That doesn’t mean we don’t need it because we definitely do, and so hopefully I can contribute to it when I get back.”

Conner, who was in the midst of his best game of the season with 145 rushing yards and a touchdown, was injured in the final minutes against Miami when he landed on his shoulder the wrong way and defenders piled on top of him.

The team was off Monday, but coach Mike Tomlin said Conner would have been a full participant in practice if one had occurred.

“It’s a hypothetical work day and so there’s some angst there,” Tomlin said. “We feel comfortable about his ability to be available to us as we do (guard) Ramon Foster, but we have to get through the week in that regard.”

Conner last practiced on Nov. 6, but didn’t participate the rest of the week after that.

“I didn’t take a step back, just really was like a trial,” Conner said. “Seeing how it felt. That’s the main thing we preach, no steps back. I just wanted to be out there with the guys again and just being around some football, going through walkthroughs, catching a couple passes. I kind of knew where I was at, but I wanted to get back out there like a little trial.”

Conner also spent more than 20 minutes on Heinz Field prior to Sunday’s game, working out with a trainer one-on-one to stay in shape.

“If I do play on Thursday, it’s kind of hard to match game fatigue to just regular out on the field running,” he said. “I’m just trying to get a little exercise, a little sweat. Working the cardio.”

The key to rebounding from this injury is pain management, Conner said Monday.

Though the team won’t practice much before Thursday’s game, Conner said he’ll be able to tell if he’s ready by reaching range of motion and strength benchmarks. A week after the injury, Conner wasn’t easily able to move his arm above his head, he said. That’s gotten progressively better.

Though he’ll be playing in his first game back from injury, Conner isn’t going to change his hard-charging running style.

“It’s not really something I think about,” Conner said. “My running style has got me this far so I continue to do it. I’m not going to change my game completely. I’m a running back. Things happen.”

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