Steelers RB Conner: balky ankle heading in right direction

NFL Dallas

PITTSBURGH (AP)Pittsburgh running back James Conner believes he’ll be able to play on his balky left ankle on Sunday when the Steelers host Denver in their home opener.

Conner left a season-opening win over the New York Giants on Monday in the first half after something ”wasn’t feeling right.”

The fourth-year pro said Friday he reviewed the tape and couldn’t pick out exactly when it happened but it became apparent in the second quarter that he couldn’t put weight on it. He finished with just 9 yards rushing on six carries and 8 yards receiving on a pair of dump-offs from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

The Steelers held Conner out of practice on Wednesday, but he was a full participant on both Thursday and Friday and figures to be in the mix as the Steelers (1-0) try for their first 2-0 start since 2017. Conner insists he doesn’t care if he’s the primary back or part of a committee approach along with Benny Snell, who ran for a season-high 113 yards after filling in.

”Benny, Jaylen (Samuels), all those guys, they’ve been playing huge so having the ‘starting’ label, I’m not really a selfish guy,” Conner said. ”I want to go out there and compete.”

Conner began the season hoping to quell concerns about his durability. A knee injury ended his rookie season in 2017. He made the Pro Bowl despite missing three games in 2018 and sat out six games last year because of issues with his shoulders and his quadriceps. Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert insisted the team continued to have faith in Conner, but the team also opted not to offer him a contract extension.

The 25-year-old knows he’s playing for a job next year, be it with the Steelers or somewhere else. Getting dinged in the opener wasn’t part of the plan.

”I’m not naive,” Conner said. ”I know stuff happens, I’ve been trying to do everything I can, trying to stay healthy.”

The running game started humming against the Giants only after Conner exited, though offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner attributed the uptick to the offensive line knocking off some of the rust while facing game action for the first time in more than eight months. Snell ripped off a pair of 30-yard runs in the second half and coach Mike Tomlin believes Snell is ready to be a primary back if necessary.

Conner doesn’t disagree, pointing to the way Snell leaned out his 5-foot-10 frame during the virtual offseason and the fury with which he ran against the Giants as proof.

”Good hard running, falling forward and I just see a guy who’s constantly been improving since I’ve seen him step into the organization,” Conner said. ”It’s so cool to see a guy taking care of his body.”

Whoever lines up in the backfield against the Broncos (0-1), they’ll be behind new faces on the offensive line. Rookie Kevin Dotson figures to make his first start at right guard with perennial All-Pro David DeCastro dealing with a knee issue and veteran backup Stefen Wisniewski on injured reserve because of a chest injury.

Chukwuma Okorafor will start at right tackle after Zach Banner’s season ended in the fourth quarter in New York when he tore the ACL in his right knee.

NOTES: The Steelers promoted OL Derwin Gray from the practice roster to fill Wisniewski’s spot. … All the other players who skipped practice on Wednesday for various reasons are expected to play against Denver.

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