Following up on the ongoing story
. ... As ESPN.com's Brooke Pryor noted this week, lost in the drama of the last-second fight with the Cleveland Browns on Thursday was another ugly reality: The Pittsburgh Steelers' offense is in serious trouble.
After a performance against the Miami Dolphins in Week 8 in which it looked like everything was starting to click -- wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster
and running back James Conner
each hit 100 yards for the first time this season -- the Steelers' offense has declined in the past three games to averaging marks near the bottom of the league in most offensive categories.
Pittsburgh's 283.5 yards per game and 4.84 yards per play rank 28th and 27th
, respectively. The team's total QBR through 10 games is 36.4, good for 28th in the league, and both the 80.7 rushing yards per game and 202.8 passing yards per game rank 27th in the NFL.
It's a far cry from the offense of the past couple of seasons that routinely put up stats in the top 10.
Pryor went on to advise readers the solution might be complicated.
Playing against a Miami defense that allowed 414 yards per game covered some of the Steelers' offensive deficiencies, including an inexperienced quarterback, shoddy depth and no clear No. 2 receiver. But the past three weeks, injuries to the Steelers' top playmakers have exacerbated the team's offensive issues.
Specifically, injuries to Conner, Smith-Schuster and receiver Diontae Johnson
have forced the team to cobble together a backfield and wide receiving corps with elevated practice-squad players. Since last Thursday's game, the Steelers signed running back Kerrith Whyte and wide receiver Deon Cain
to the active roster from the Chicago Bears' and Indianapolis Colts' practice squads, respectively.
They also added two wide receivers and a running back to the practice squad.
Conner was injured in the final two minutes of that win over the Dolphins, and initially, the Steelers considered making a trade-deadline move to acquire Bell, a source told ESPN's Adam Schefter.
But once Conner's injury was determined to not be as serious as initially feared, the Steelers opted to fill Conner's void the next two weeks with a slew of bottom-of-the-roster transactions. That's what led to former practice-squad backs Tony Brooks-James
and Trey Edmunds
taking on larger roles against the Colts and the Rams.
But after averaging 5.4 yards per carry against the Dolphins, the Steelers managed just 3.6 against the Colts and 1.6 against the Rams.
Thanks to strong performances by the defense, the Steelers won both of those games.
Conner returned last Thursday, but the run game didn't get any better. Playing through shoulder pain, Conner wasn't able to channel the reckless running style that has made him so effective throughout this career.
"I could tell he wasn't fully 100 [percent]," fellow back Jaylen Samuels
said. "He wanted to be out there with us to make plays, help us win. I can't blame him for that. He tried and got hurt a little bit, early first quarter. Said he couldn't go back out there."
Conner finished with 10 yards on five carries, and a patchwork group managed just 41 yards on 10 carries in his absence.
Conner has been ruled out this week.
With Conner out of the picture again, the workload will fall on Samuels, Edmunds and Benny Snell
, who is back in the mix this week after missing the last three games with a knee injury.
"You have to take the same approach every week, like you are starting. That is what I do," said Samuels. "With our position, it's a physical position. We take a lot of hits. We are going to get banged up week to week. You have to be ready. That is my mindset going into every week."
The return of Snell to the lineup will be a definite boost to the offense, and he is as ready to be back on the field.
"I am very anxious. I am ready. I am excited," said Snell after practice. "I'm 110 percent baby. We're going."
Beyond that, Mason Rudolph
played his worst game as a Steeler against the Browns, with four interceptions and 221 passing yards. Although many of his passes were off-target, his dismal numbers were also a product of injuries to the wide receivers.
The Steelers finished Thursday's loss without their top-two receivers after both Smith-Schuster and Johnson exited early with concussions.
Smith-Schuster also sustained a knee injury and he will also miss this week's game.
With Johnson and Smith-Schuster sidelined and wide receiver Ryan Switzer
placed on injured reserve before Thursday's game, the Steelers turned to a trio of unproven receivers in James Washington
, Johnny Holton
and Tevin Jones
Washington is the lone drafted player of the group and the only one who had a catch with the team before Thursday.
As a group, they combined for 91 yards on six catches. Holton had one reception on seven targets.
With Conner and Smith-Schuster out this week, the good news is Johnson was removed from the final injury report on Friday.
Even with Johnson in the mix, however, Washington should see an increase in snaps, routes and targets this week in Cincinnati.
As ESPN.com's Jim McCormick noted, while Washington failed to secure his lone target against the Bengals in Week 4, this time could prove more productive given the potential (and arguably likely) uptick in opportunities headed his way. The Bengals, after all, have yielded 39.1 fantasy points per game to receivers during the past month, eighth-most in the league.
Also worth noting, after averaging 3.8 targets per game during his first five full games this season, Vance McDonald
has handled seven targets each of the past three weeks. According to ESPN's Mike Clay, McDonald played 92 percent of the snaps and ran a route on 89 percent of pass plays during the span.
Remember: The Bengals allow a TD on drives at the ninth-highest rate, they give up a league-high 167 rushing yards per game (most since the 2010 Bills), and certainly relevant to Samuels, they allow opponents to complete passes to running backs at the fourth-highest rate. As ESPN's Matthew Berry noted, for his career when getting at least 10 touches, Samuels averages 16.6 PPG.