Steelers Beat Writer

Dale Lolley is a contributor to the Observer-Reporter and has been covering the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1993.

James Conner will likely miss his fourth game in the past five when the Steelers host the Browns today. And even in the game in which he played during that stretch, he lasted less than a quarter before tapping out.

It’s reaching the point where the Steelers can’t depend on the former Pitt star. After all, the best and often most overlooked attribute of a player is availability.

Sunday’s game will mark the 10th Conner has missed in his three seasons with the Steelers. And there are some within the organization who are ready for rookie Benny Snell to get a bigger role, even when Conner returns.

Snell runs just as hard, if not harder than Conner. And he came back a week sooner than the team anticipated from a knee surgery that sidelined him for three weeks.

But the bottom line is that neither is a true No. 1 running back. Conner is constantly nicked because of a hard-charging running style, and Snell is a nice depth player, but he’s not likely to be someone who holds up to the pounding, either, given his similar style to Conner.

Jaylen Samuels, meanwhile, has proven to be a complementary player.

Conner will be a free agent at the end of the 2020 season in what will likely be his final season with the Steelers. With T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster, his fellow 2017 draft classmates, also reaching the end of their rookie contracts, the Steelers need to give those two big raises.

  • Don’t expect to see much, if any, extracurricular stuff today between the Steelers and Browns. The game is too important for anyone on either team to take a selfish penalty or worse.

At least that’s the way the Steelers feel about it.

“It will probably be flagged early, but I can’t see it coming from our end,” Steelers guard Ramon Foster said. “We’re going to play ball. Look at what we’ve got. We’ve got a lot of different moving parts, especially on offense. It was our offense vs. their defense. We’ve got a very young group of guys and we’ve got to capitalize on every opportunity we’re going to get.”

  • Mike Tomlin didn’t have any choice but to start Devlin Hodges in this game.

Mason Rudolph had managed things well in his first six starts, throwing nine touchdown passes and just three interceptions.

But one touchdown pass and, more important, five interceptions in his past two starts was something this team just can’t live with.

Fortunately for the Steelers, they were playing the Bengals last week.

The Steelers in their current state don’t need a hero at quarterback. But they also can’t have a quarterback be the reason they don’t win.

  • Starling Marte told Deportivo this week that he wouldn’t mind getting out of Pittsburgh.

“They have the power to decide,” Marte told the newspaper. “If I had it in me, I would leave at this point because the caliber of players that we have is not enough to compete in a World Series. The Mets have everything. It would be a great opportunity to play with them.”

Marte batted .295 with 23 home runs, 82 RBI and 25 steals last season. He’s 31. He might possibily have another season or two like last year in him, but a decline is surely coming.

If the Pirates can get good value out of him, they’d be foolish not to trade him.

This week’s games: Steelers (plus 2) over Browns: The Browns haven’t swept the Steelers since 1988. Yes, the Steelers are undermanned in this game, but they found a rushing attack last week and the defense is much tougher at Heinz Field. How much so? They are plus-9 in turnover ratio and have 30 of their 38 sacks at home this season. The Steelers will pull out all the stops in this one and find a way to win. Take the Steelers, 19-17

Baltimore (minus 5 ½) over San Franciso: The line opened at 7, which was too high. The 49ers’ pass rush in the best in the league and their defensive line will cause the Ravens problems. But the Ravens also will blitz Jimmy Garoppolo like crazy. The 49ers will beat it at times, but the Ravens should make enough plays to win at home. Take the Ravens, 27-21

N.Y. Jets (minus 3) over Cincinnati: The Bengals are going back to Andy Dalton, which definitely gives them a better chance to win. But the Jets will completely shut down Joe Mixon in the running game and Dalton might be a little rusty this week. Look for a big game out of Le’Veon Bell. Take the Jets, 24-17

Tennessee (plus 1 ½) over Indianapolis: Both teams enter the game at 6-5, so this could almost be an elimination game in the AFC, especially if the Colts win because they would have swept the regular season series. But the Colts still haven’t won a game without T.Y. Hilton, and he won’t play in this game. Ryan Tannehill also is playing well for the Titans. Take the Titans, 23-16

Philadelphia (minus 10) over Miami: The Eagles can pull into a tie with the Cowboys for first place in the NFC North with a win. And they’re getting some of their receivers back this week. Miami quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is getting beaten up behind a bad offensive line. And the Eagles will get after him. Take the Eagles, 28-17

Last Week: 2-2-1 Overall: 31-27-1

Dale Lolley covers the Steelers for DKPittsburghsports.com and writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.

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