Homecoming arrives a bit late this season when former University of Pittsburgh running back James Conner takes on his original NFL team on the field he called home for the Panthers and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Conner plays in the stadium for the first time since becoming a member of the Arizona Cardinals in 2021, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin knows all too well what to expect.
“We can’t allow James Conner to do what James does,” Tomlin said. “Know, love and got a lot of respect for James. He’s a legitimate tough guy and a big-time competitor. Expecting nothing but his absolute best coming back into Pittsburgh.”
Arizona (2-10) arrives in rebuilding mode, armed with the second-worst record in the NFL, and Conner missed more than a month with injuries. He has rushed for 526 yards on 104 attempts in eight games for the Cardinals, who are coming off of a 37-14 home loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
Cardinals head coach Jonathan Gannon is building his game plan around trying to contain Steelers pass rusher T.J. Watt, who is tied for the league lead in sacks with 13.5.
“He better not get his, because he’ll train-wreck the game,” Gannon said. “You have to be very aware. There are going to be things that we don’t want to do, or we want to do that we can’t, because we have to limit his impact in the game.”
The Steelers (7-4) are leaning heavily on Watt and their defense to contend for a wild-card spot in the AFC and are currently second in the North division, 1 1/2 games behind the Baltimore Ravens.
“His team always plays with a level of physicality, and a belief that they’re going to win every game they play,” Gannon said of the Steelers under Tomlin.
Pittsburgh made a change at offensive coordinator prior to last week’s victory and has won three out of its past four. Tomlin said he came away optimistic after the 16-10 win at Cincinnati last week, when the Steelers amassed a season-high 421 yards.
And there could be more where that came from, including an opportunity to get quarterback Kenny Pickett his first touchdown pass in four weeks. His last TD pass was Nov. 2 against the Titans.
Pickett is fighting an ankle injury, Tomlin said, but was able to participate in practice on Wednesday.
Arizona’s defense has been scorched in the first half each of the past two games and the Cardinals have allowed the second-most points in the league this year behind only the Washington Commanders.
“They are utilizing a five-man front to balance some of that out, which is smart ball,” Tomlin said. “The five-man front is challenging. They do a plethora of things out of it.
“They do it in base, they do it in sub. We’ve got to do a really good job of dealing with the number of people they play along the line of scrimmage. It really minimizes your ability to double-team and get movement.”
Pittsburgh has won its past four meetings against Arizona, including the 27-23 win in Super Bowl XLIII.
Arizona’s last win over Pittsburgh was in 2007.
Steelers defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick returned to practice on Wednesday after missing more than a month with a hamstring injury. He is on track to play on Sunday, Tomlin said.
–Field Level Media