PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger cut off the question mid-sentence. The quicker to dismiss it, the better.
No, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback stressed, there are no issues about running back James Conner's ability to hold onto the ball even after Conner's fumble late in the third quarter on Sunday in Denver swung momentum to the Broncos in what became a 24-17 loss that ended Pittsburgh's six-game winning streak.
"I'll stop you now," Roethlisberger said Wednesday. "There is no concern and we have all the confidence in him. We are going to ride with James because he's our guy."
Conner took responsibility for the mistake, saying he didn't do a good job covering up before getting hit by Denver's Bradley Roby at the end of a 23-yard reception. The fumble was Conner's fourth of the season, tying him with Chicago's Tarik Cohen and Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott for most in the NFL by a non-quarterback.
"It's correctable," Conner said. "It's not something that's going to be a problem for me."
It can't be if the Steelers (7-3-1) want to lock down their fifth straight playoff appearance. Pittsburgh righted its season by relying heavily on Conner after falling into a 1-2-1 hole. He averaged 172.3 yards from scrimmage during a four-game stretch from Oct. 7-Nov. 4, a surge that earned him AFC offensive player of the month honours for October and made the absence of two-time All-Pro Le'Veon Bell a non-issue.
Those numbers have taken a steep drop since Conner left a blowout of Carolina on Nov. 8 with a concussion. He had just 15 touches in a comeback win over Jacksonville on Nov. 18, a number that would have crept up to 16 if he hadn't let a pass go through his hands on Pittsburgh's final drive that would have been a walk-in touchdown. That drop became moot when the Steelers found a way to win anyway.
Facing the NFL's 27th-ranked run defence last Sunday in Denver, the Steelers opted to have Roethlisberger throw 58 times. Conner finished with 17 touches against the Broncos and just one after the fumble, a 1-yard run on second-and-goal from the Denver 3 with 1:53 left. Roethlisberger faked a handoff to Conner on the next play and threw a game-ending pick in the end zone.
Conner shrugged when asked about his drop in opportunities in recent weeks. The former college star at Pittsburgh understands he's just a second-year player who has hardly earned the right to start making demands.
"(Offensive co-ordinator) Randy (Fichtner) has a game plan," Conner said. "We talk about it in the hotel before the game and that's just what it is. I'm in no position. It doesn't matter what I like. My job is just to go out there and execute. When I don't run the ball, I try to help the tackles and be involved in the pass game and do my job."
Maybe, but the guys blocking for Conner wouldn't mind it if they saw his No. 30 coming up behind them at the line of scrimmage with a head of steam.
"We got to get him the ball, get him back heated up again, getting him some runs he feels comfortable with, get him more involved in the game plan," centre Maurkice Pouncey said. "Obviously whenever he was doing things, he looked really, really good out there."
Conner isn't worried about getting run down in his first full season as a starter, or developing a reputation as a chronic fumbler. He coughed it up seven times in 689 career touches at Pitt. His four this season have come on 235 touches, not particularly alarming save for the timing.
He let one drop in the fourth quarter in Cleveland in Week 1, which set the stage for a comeback that allowed the Browns to rally from a 14-point deficit and force a tie. He caught a break in Week 5 against Atlanta when the ball squirted free and rolled out of bounds as he tried to break a tackle inside the Falcons 10. In a rematch with Cleveland on Oct. 28, the Browns were up 6-0 when Conner fumbled at the Pittsburgh 27. Fullback Roosevelt Nix fell on it and Pittsburgh — feeding Conner regularly on a day he ran for 146 yards and two scores — got it together in time to win going away.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin doesn't think Conner needs to change the way he runs, but Tomlin also knows the Los Angeles Chargers (8-3) will test that theory when they visit Heinz Field on Sunday.
"When you got some tape with some balls on the ground that people use that as motivation, I know we do," Tomlin said.
Conner will use it as motivation even as he continues to adjust to the idea that for the first time in his football life, he's not the focal point of the offence.
"You play the same teams over and over again, so you have to switch it up," Conner said. "That's just the way life goes."
NOTES: WR Eli Rogers practiced Wednesday for the first time since tearing the ACL in his right knee in a playoff loss to Jacksonville in January. Pittsburgh has a three-week window before it has to decide whether it will activate Rogers. ... RT Marcus Gilbert (knee), S Morgan Burnett (back), LB Bud Dupree (pectoral) and TE Vance McDonald (hip) did not practice. ... DE Stephon Tuitt (elbow) was limited while TE Xavier Grimble (concussion) was a full participant.
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