James Conner still has time to finish storybook season

PITTSBURGH -- 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.

Adequately replacing Bell was never the objective for Pittsburgh. Bell is arguably the game's best running back. More pointedly, Pittsburgh wanted to see whether Conner could become the feature back of their future, and that job is nearly complete.

A few more big-performance reminders might help, but left tackle Alejandro Villanueva never judged Conner by his stats.

"For players, it’s always [about] to be able to give 100 percent in what we do and try to fight for our teammates -- and that’s what he’s done," Villanueva said.