PITTSBURGH (AP) — Benny Snell Jr., Tevin Jones and Johnny Holton have been on the field in games together before. But that was in August, when their main goal was proving they deserved spots on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 53-man roster.
The stakes will be higher on Sunday in Cincinnati, when they’ll be part of a patched together offense scrambling to stay in contention.
Snell, a rookie running back, will be available for the first time since knee surgery following a win over Miami on Oct. 28. Jones will make his second appearance after getting bumped up from the practice squad this month. Holton, who made the team as a special teams’ ace and has caught all of 12 passes across five seasons, is the veteran in a group that includes Deon Cain, a rookie signed off the Indianapolis practice squad last weekend.
Not exactly what the Steelers (5-5) had in mind in September, before a massive spate of injuries jumbled the depth chart. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger left in September with a right-elbow injury that cut short his 16th season before it really began. Running back James Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster — both Pro Bowlers a year ago — are out against the winless Bengals (0-10) after getting hurt in a loss to Cleveland last week.
The five receivers quarterback Mason Rudolph figures to have at his disposal in Cincinnati have combined for 89 catches for 1,316 yards in their respective careers. Smith-Schuster hauled in 111 passes for 1,427 yards by himself in 2018. The three running backs — Snell, Jaylen Samuels and Trey Edmunds — have run for 622 yards and two touchdowns in the NFL. Conner piled up 973 yards rushing and 12 scores last season.
“The situation is unique,” Edmunds said. “We all know that but we have to find out a way to make it work. We’re really not in a position to make excuses, where we're at with our record and everything and with all the injuries and stuff like that. It's definitely hard not being able to get into a rhythm and not being able to get touches back to back but it's our job to just go out there and do whatever we can."
Receivers James Washington and rookie Diontae Johnson, who expects to play after recovering from a concussion sustained against the Browns, give quarterback Mason Rudolph at least a small sense of stability following a poor performance in which he threw four interceptions and clashed with Cleveland defensive end Myles Garrett. The brawl with Garrett included Rudolph tugging at Garrett’s helmet before Garrett ripped off Rudolph’s and slugged Rudolph over the head with it. In the aftermath, Garrett was suspended for the rest of the season and Rudolph denied Garrett’s allegation he used a racial slur.
The headlines the fight created overshadowed Pittsburgh’s very real, very acute issues moving the ball. The Steelers have struggled to do much of anything against the Browns and have scored three offensive touchdowns in three games. Now they have to do it without their top running back, top wide receiver and center Maurkice Pouncey, who is serving a two-game suspension for his role in the melee in Cleveland.
It only puts more pressure on offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, who is trying to find a balance between staying aggressive while trying to be careful to not ask whoever is available to do something they’re not ready to do.
“Put some more pressure on myself and tend to try and put them in the best situation,” Fichtner said. “That doesn’t sometimes always help them. You know, it’s hard to understand that comment, but sometimes you may be a little too conservative at the time, and you’ve got to allow for the growth to occur. You’ve got to allow for the idea that the next guy in knows what to do and is going to give us a chance to win, and I chance to make a play. We’ve got to let them do that.”
Even if they’ve only been in town a week.
Cain received a crash course on the playbook after Pittsburgh signed him last Saturday and he spent a considerable amount of post-practice time trying to develop some kind of rapport with Rudolph. On Sunday he might walk into a huddle that includes Jones, who caught the first two passes of his career last week against Cleveland. Asked if the turnover means guys need to wear “Hi, my name is” nametags in the huddle, Jones laughed.
“When we welcome them to the family, it's like Thanksgiving,” Jones said. “Thankful for everybody to come, ready to put a hat in and help us out.”
NOTES: CB Artie Burns (knee) is doubtful to play against Cincinnati. ... LB Bud Dupree (triceps), TE Nick Vannett (illness) and LB Ola Adeniyi (concussion) are all expected to play.