Arizona Cardinals running back James Conner returns to Pittsburgh, where he played college football and was a starter for the Steelers.

Steelers prepare for Cardinals, reunion with RB James Conner

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

Nov 16, 2023; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jake Browning (6) hands off to running back Trayveon Williams (32) in the fourth quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Greene-USA TODAY Sports

Bengals, Steelers both transitioning heading into divison battle

Two teams undergoing significant midseason change and turmoil meet on Sunday afternoon when the Cincinnati Bengals host the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Bengals (5-5) have followed four straight wins with two losses, including a painful 34-20 setback in Baltimore on Nov. 16.

The loss to the AFC North rival Ravens was not only costly in the standings, but it was also devastating to Cincinnati’s playoff chances, as franchise quarterback Joe Burrow was lost for the season due to a right wrist injury.

Jake Browning stepped in following Burrow’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Joe Mixon in the second quarter and will be taking over starting quarterback responsibilities going forward. Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh will mark his first career NFL start.

“It’s unfortunate to see (this happen to) a guy who works as hard as he does,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said of Burrow’s injury. “The time and energy he puts into his body and making sure he’s at his best for this organization. It kills you to watch somebody have to go through this several times now.

“That’s football. You look around the league, and this is something that happens to quarterbacks. Now it’s on the rest of the team to rally around each other and find a way out of this.”

Cincinnati has faith in Browning, though.

“I don’t think you need to cut anything back,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said of the play calls. “He’s mentally capable of handling the system as it stands. … I think if you were to ask him, he’d probably get irritated if you felt like he had to cut back at all.”

While Browning also replaced Burrow in the season opener in Cleveland in the fourth quarter, he took his first meaningful NFL snaps in the Baltimore game.

Browning completed 8 of 14 passes for 68 yards with one touchdown against the Ravens. He led a 10-play field-goal drive to open the third quarter and a threw a 2-yard TD pass to Ja’Marr Chase to account for Cincinnati’s final 10 points on the night.

The Steelers aren’t changing their quarterback, but instead their offensive coordinator, as Matt Canada was fired on Tuesday and replaced with Eddie Faulkner, the team’s running backs coach.

Pittsburgh enters the game in playoff position despite an offense that is ranked 28th in both scoring (16.6 points per game) and yards per game (280.1).

After last week’s 13-10 loss at Cleveland, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin fired Canada and replaced him with Faulkner.

“We’ve got to score touchdowns in this business. You have got to win games in this business. And just the totality of it has us where we are today,” Tomlin said.

“I’m excited about Eddie Faulkner coordinating our efforts, organizing staff responsibility in meetings, organizing game planning, leading our unit as a collective in review of our tape in preparation for upcoming opponents and things of that nature, things that the coordinator does.”

While Faulkner will assume the coordinating duties, Tomlin indicated quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan will be the chief play-caller.

Defensive end Sam Hubbard missed Cincinnati’s last two games — both losses — with an ankle injury. But the team is hopeful to have him back this weekend after he returned to practice on Wednesday.

Receiver Tee Higgins (hamstring) and cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt (quad) did not practice for the Bengals.

Wide receiver George Pickens missed the Steelers’ practice on Wednesday due to a shin injury. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (hamstring) was also out. Fitzpatrick, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, has missed the past three games.

–Field Level Media

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who was fired Tuesday, pictured talking with running back Najee Harris (22) during organized team activities at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Steelers fire OC Matt Canada

Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada was fired on Tuesday after piloting Pittsburgh to averages of 16.6 points and 280.1 yards in the first 10 games of the 2023 season.

Pittsburgh (6-4) is 31st in passing and No. 28 in the NFL in points and yards per games.

“Matt Canada has been relieved of his duties as offensive coordinator. I appreciate Matt’s hard work and dedication and I wish him the best moving forward in his career,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said in a statement Tuesday.

Canada became offensive coordinator in 2021 and was tasked with leading the Steelers’ transition from Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in 2021 was Najee Harris, who was one of loudest voices suggesting a change was necessary on Sunday. Wide receiver George Pickens has been vocal about his own frustration this month.

Tomlin had resisted calls for Canada to be replaced, denying that a change would bring the fix fans and some in the media were clamoring for as the Steelers were outgained in total yards in every game.

Running backs coach Eddie Faulkner and quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan are being promoted to a co-op role at offensive coordinator. Sullivan is expected to call plays.

Quarterback Kenny Pickett is 25th in the NFL in passing yards and is among a group tied at 28th — it includes benched Jets QB Zach Wilson and Desmond Ridder of the Falcons — with six TD passes.

Harris is 13th in the AFC — one spot ahead of teammate Jaylen Warren — with 499 rushing yards this season. He’s tied for 23rd in the NFL with former Steelers running back James Conner (Cardinals), who was recently activated from injured reserve.

“You could do two things,” Harris said. “You could look at the record and say, ‘OK, we’re still good right now.’ Or we could look at the record and be like, ‘If we keep playing this type of football, how long is that s— going to last?’ I look at it like, ‘How long that s— going to last?’ Y’all could look at it like it’s a good record, but I mean it’s the NFL. Winning how we did, it’s not going to get us nowhere.”

Canada, 51, was the Steelers’ quarterbacks coach for one season before becoming offensive coordinator.

Pittsburgh will meet the Bengals on Sunday in Cincinnati.

–Field Level Media

Jan 1, 2023; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth (88) smiles before the game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jessica Rapfogel-USA TODAY Sports

Report: Steelers to activate TE Pat Freiermuth off IR

Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth is expected to be activated from injured reserve prior to Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns, NFL Network reported on Saturday.

The Steelers opened the 21-day practice window on Wednesday for Freiermuth, who was a full participant in practice on Thursday and Friday after landing on IR on Oct. 21 when he aggravated a right hamstring injury. He has not played since a Week 4 loss at Houston on Oct. 1.

Freiermuth, 25, has eight catches for 53 yards and two touchdowns in four games (all starts) this season. He has 131 receptions for 1,282 yards and 11 TDs in 36 games (21 starts) since Pittsburgh picked him in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Pittsburgh (6-3) is looking for a season sweep of its AFC North rivals when it visits Cleveland (6-3) on Sunday. The Steelers won 26-22 at home in Week 2.

–Field Level Media

Oct 15, 2023; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (17) throws the ball during warm ups before the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Rookie QB, Browns ‘D’ aim to subdue Steelers

Deshaun Watson is out and Dorian Thompson-Robinson is in for the Cleveland Browns when they host the Pittsburgh Steelers in a crucial AFC North game on Sunday.

Watson’s injury-plagued season ended when the Browns (6-3) announced they were putting their $230 million quarterback on injured reserve as he prepares for right shoulder surgery. Watson suffered both a displaced fracture in his shoulder and a left high ankle sprain in last week’s 33-31 comeback win over the Baltimore Ravens.

“I’m still in disbelief. I’m still trying to process all the information,” said Watson, whose Browns have won four of their last five games. “I felt like we were turning a corner to really make a run and still believe we still will with the guys in this locker room. I just wanted to physically be a part of it.”

The Browns also have journeyman P.J. Walker on the roster, but coach Kevin Stefanski named the dual-threat rookie Thompson-Robinson his Week 11 starter.

The fifth-round draft pick out of UCLA had an eye-catching preseason but threw three interceptions in a loss to Baltimore on Oct. 1 when he started in place of an injured Watson.

“I want to give him a week where he knows he’s the starter and gets a full week of preparation,” Stefanski said.

Cleveland already is without star running back Nick Chubb, who needed a second surgery this week to repair torn ligaments in his right knee.

Despite the injuries, the Browns are in the mix in the division and AFC wild-card races.

Credit a defense ranked tops the league in yards allowed (242.7 per game) and sixth in scoring (18.9), with Myles Garrett tied for the NFL lead at 11 sacks. Jerome Ford (107 yards last week) has taken over lead-back duties with Kareem Hunt earned a co-op role in the backfield to help ease the loss of Hunt.

Cleveland and Pittsburgh (6-3) are right behind the Ravens, who entered the week 7-3 ahead of a date with Cincinnati (5-4) on Thursday night.

“It’s a big game in their venue,” said Mike Tomlin, whose Steelers are 6-0 in one-score games and have a minus-26 point differential. “We respect that. We’re really excited about the rivalries that comprise our division. We’ve had two divisional games but we haven’t had an opportunity to go into a hostile environment.”

Like the Browns, the Steelers also have won four of five, most recently a 23-19 triumph over Green Bay. Kenny Pickett threw for just 126 yards, but Jaylen Warren provided a season-high 101 rushing yards and a touchdown to complement Najee Harris’ 82 yards and a score.

“You’ve got to win at all costs in this game,” Pickett said. “That’s all I truly care about. Of course, you want to light up the stat sheet. But as long as we’re getting the wins, I’m OK with that. I sleep good with getting a win.”

Pittsburgh beat Cleveland at home in Week 2. T.J. Watt’s 16-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter was the difference in the 26-22 victory.

The Steelers opened the 21-day practice window for tight end Pat Freiermuth (hamstring), but he remains on IR for now.

Other noteworthy injuries for Pittsburgh include wide receiver Diontae Johnson (thumb), safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (hamstring), and defensive tackle Heyward (groin), none of whom practiced Wednesday.

The Browns listed 18 players on their Wednesday injury report, although four were for rest and no associated injury concern. Of note, cornerback Denzel Ward (neck) returned to practice in a limited capacity.

–Field Level Media

Nov 2, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; The ball goes through hands of Tennessee Titans running back Tyjae Spears (32) as Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Kwon Alexander (54) applies coverage during the second quarter at Acrisure Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Reports: Steelers LB Kwon Alexander tore Achilles vs. Packers

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Kwon Alexander is done for the season with a torn Achilles, ESPN and NFL Network reported Sunday.

Alexander was injured during the first quarter of Sunday’s 23-19 home victory over the Green Bay Packers. After the game, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin termed it “a serious lower-body injury.”

Alexander has 41 tackles, one sack, one interception and one forced fumble in nine games with the Steelers.

It was the second major injury to a Pittsburgh linebacker this month. Cole Holcomb sustained a season-ending knee injury against the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 2.

Alexander also sustained a torn Achilles on Christmas Day in 2020 as a member of the New Orleans Saints.

Alexander, 29, is in his ninth NFL season. He has played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2015-18), San Francisco 49ers (2019-20), Saints (2020-21), New York Jets (2022) and Steelers.

Alexander recorded a career-best 145 tackles for the Buccaneers in 2016. He made the Pro Bowl the following season when he had 97 tackles and a career-high three interceptions.

–Field Level Media

Nov 12, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jaylen Warren (30) scores on a sixteen yard touchdown run past Green Bay Packers safety Jonathan Owens (34) during the second quarter at Acrisure Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Steelers’ defense, run game enough to stop Packers

Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren rushed for one touchdown apiece, and the Pittsburgh Steelers held on for a 23-19 win over the visiting Green Bay Packers on Sunday afternoon.

Kenny Pickett completed 14 of 23 passes for 126 yards for Pittsburgh (6-3), which won for the fourth time in its past five games. Warren finished with 110 yards from scrimmage (101 rushing, nine receiving), and Harris had 96 yards from scrimmage (82 rushing, 14 receiving).

Jordan Love completed 21 of 40 passes for 289 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions for Green Bay (3-6). Romeo Doubs and Jayden Reed had one touchdown catch apiece for the Packers, who have lost five of their past six contests.

Pittsburgh won despite being outgained 399-324 by Green Bay. The Steelers have been outgained in each of their first nine games.

Green Bay had a chance to win in the final minute. The Packers got the ball on their own 19-yard line with 59 seconds remaining and no timeouts, and they drove all the way to the Steelers’ 16-yard line with 3 seconds remaining.

Love was intercepted by Steelers cornerback Damontae Kazee on the final play.

Neither team scored a touchdown during a second half dominated by defense.

Green Bay opened the second half with back-to-back field goals to gain a 19-17 lead. Anders Carlson made his first kick from 31 yards and his second kick from 28 yards.

Pittsburgh answered with a 49-yard field goal by Chris Boswell to pull ahead 20-19 with 1:05 left in the third quarter.

Boswell connected again, this time from 35 yards, to nudge the Steelers’ lead to 23-19 with 5:14 remaining in the fourth quarter.

The Steelers built a 17-13 lead at the half.

Pittsburgh opened the scoring on its first possession. Harris scored on a 4-yard run.

Love connected with Doubs for an 8-yard touchdown later in the first quarter to even the score.

The Steelers regained a 14-7 lead in the first minute of the second quarter. Warren bounced to the right and spun off a defender for a 16-yard rushing touchdown.

A 42-yard field goal by Boswell pushed Pittsburgh’s lead to 17-7 about four minutes later.

The Packers cut the deficit to 17-13 with 4:14 remaining before halftime. Love lobbed a perfect deep ball for Reed, who made a leaping catch in the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown. Patrick Peterson blocked the extra point.

–Field Level Media

Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love (10) is hugged by head coach Matt LaFleur after throwing a touchdown pass during the fourth quarter of their game at Lambeau Field Sunday, November 5, 2023 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Green Bay Packers beat the Los Angeles Rams 20-3.

Steelers plotting counterpunch to Packers’ stout run D

The Pittsburgh Steelers intend to focus on scoring more points than their opponent — not necessarily gaining more yards — when they host the Green Bay Packers on Sunday afternoon.

Pittsburgh (5-3) has been outgained, based on total yards, in every game this season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Steelers are the 34th team in NFL history to be outgained in each of their first eight games, and they are the first team in that group to boast a winning record.

Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett said he and his teammates believe they always can find a way.

“We all have faith in each other,” Pickett said. “We’ve got trust, and we all care for one another. There’s no one in there that has any doubt when it comes down to those fourth quarters that we’re going to be able to put a drive together and go down there and score.

“Right now, we’re just searching for that consistency all game.”

The Steelers’ next test comes against Green Bay (3-5), which is looking to put together back-to-back wins for the first time this season.

The Packers are coming off a 20-3 win at home against the Los Angeles Rams. Quarterback Jordan Love completed a career-high 76.9 percent of his passes (20 of 26) and the defense allowed no touchdowns for the first time this season.

Green Bay’s run defense rates as particularly impressive as of late. The Packers have held opponents to only 2.3 yards per carry (57 rushes for 130 yards) in their last two games.

A statistic sure to snag the attention of the Steelers and their top running back, Najee Harris.

“That just goes to all the work we put in during the week,” Packers rookie defensive lineman Colby Wooden said. “We truly are invested in this. That’s the result we get when everybody is playing faster, everybody is trusting each other and playing physical. That’s the outcome we get — we win.”

Similarly, Pittsburgh has relied on its defense throughout much of the season. The Steelers are coming off a 20-16 win at home against the Tennessee Titans, which marked the fourth game in a row in which they have held opponents to 20 points or fewer.

T.J. Watt is a big reason why the Steelers’ defense has been so stout. Watt has 87 sacks in his first 95 games, and he can surpass his older brother J.J. Watt for the second-most sacks by a player in his first 100 games on Sunday.

J.J. Watt had 87 1/2 sacks in his first 100 contests. Reggie White is the all-time leader with 105 sacks in his first 100 games.

Both teams are dealing with some injured players.

The Packers started their practice week without cornerback Jaire Alexander (shoulder), guard Jon Runyan (neck), linebacker Quay Walker (groin) and tackle Yosh Nijman (back).

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh did not have safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (hamstring) or defensive tackle Montravius Adams Sr. (ankle) available for practice midway through the week. Fitzpatrick didn’t last week against Tennessee.

Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur said he expected a hard-fought battle ahead.

“This is a very competitive football team,” LaFleur said. “They pride themselves on physicality, and it shows up all over the tape.”

–Field Level Media

Pittsburgh Steelers Cole Holcomb pulls dirt out of his helmet after recovering a fumble during the first half against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh, PA on October 29, 2023.

Steelers place LB Cole Holcomb (knee) on IR

The Pittsburgh Steelers placed linebacker Cole Holcomb on injured reserve and activated running back Anthony McFarland from IR on Monday.

Holcomb, 27, sustained a season-ending knee injury during Thursday night’s 20-16 victory against the Tennessee Titans. He was carted off the field in the first quarter and was hospitalized overnight.

Holcomb, who signed a three-year, $18 million deal in free agency in March, finished his first season in Pittsburgh with 54 tackles, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in eight starts.

The 2019 fifth-round pick has 442 tackles, 4.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles and three interceptions in 58 games (56 starts) with Washington (2019-22) and the Steelers.

McFarland, 24, was added to the active roster on Monday after missing the past six games with a knee injury. He returned to practice last month.

A fourth-round pick by Pittsburgh in 2020, McFarland has two receptions for 11 yards and three kickoff returns for 91 yards in two games this season.

–Field Level Media

Nov 2, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson (18) makes the game winning touchdown against the Tennessee Titans during the fourth quarter at Acrisure Stadium. Pittsburgh won 20-16. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Report: Steelers’ Diontae Johnson fined $25K for criticizing officials

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson was fined $25,000 by the NFL for his criticism of officials following his team’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Pro Football Talk reported Sunday.

“Refs were just killing us the whole game,” Johnson said following the Steelers’ 20-10 loss to the Jaguars on Oct. 29, per ESPN. “… I didn’t like the refs today. They must’ve got paid good today or something, but they blew — that field goal, that hurt us coming into the half. We needed that.”

Johnson was referring to an offside call that negated Chris Boswell’s 56-yard field goal. Boswell missed the ensuing 61-yard attempt.

Johnson, 27, had eight catches for 85 yards in that game versus Jacksonville. He added seven receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown in Pittsburgh’s 20-16 win over the Tennessee Titans on Thursday, boosting his season totals to 23 grabs for 302 yards and one touchdown in five games.

A Pro Bowl selection in 2021, Johnson has 363 catches for 3,948 yards and 21 touchdowns in 69 games (60 starts) since the Steelers drafted him in the third round in 2019.

–Field Level Media