Steeler reserves ready to fill in
PITTSBURGH — Stevan Ridley figured he’d have to wait until 2018 to get a shot at reviving his career.
The running back spent most of the fall working out, trying to watch his weight and hoping a job offer would pop up. As the weeks passed, Ridley started to wonder if one ever would.
“I had talked to my agent a few times,” Ridley said. “I tried not to blow his phone up too much and ask has he heard anything, because if he had, he’d have called. But the phones were kind of quiet.”
Until, suddenly they weren’t.
When Pittsburgh Steelers rookie James Conner went down with a right knee injury in a loss to New England on Dec. 17, the AFC North champions found themselves in need of some depth behind Le’Veon Bell. Two weeks later, Ridley could find himself carrying a substantial load when the Steelers (12-3) wrap up the regular season Sunday against winless Cleveland (0-15).
Pittsburgh is weighing whether to sit Bell, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a handful of other starters to give them extra rest before the playoffs. Bell and Roethlisberger were held out of practice Friday, and neither is injured.
While Ridley and backup quarterback Landry Jones both played coy when asked about their potential roles, Ridley is grateful it’s even a topic of conversation.
“Been at the house, been åon the couch (so) whatever they throw my way, I’m excited to have it,” Ridley said. “I’m going to go out there and make the most of it.”
Ridley carried nine times for 28 yards during Pittsburgh’s Christmas Day blowout victory over Houston, allowing him the chance to shake off considerable rust. It wasn’t a breakout performance, but it also marked his most productive day in the NFL since the final two weeks of the 2015 season while playing for the Patriots.
Despite winning a Super Bowl ring with Tom Brady & Co. in 2014, Ridley found himself looking for work when 2015 ended. He bounced among five teams in less than two years before landing in Pittsburgh, where he’s buried himself in offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s playbook while arriving early and staying late to work with running backs coach James Saxon, gleaning what he can from Bell in the process.
“Ball is ball but sometimes it’s almost like school, you know,” Ridley said. “People look at us like ‘NFL players get paid a lot’ and we’re out here playing a game but they don’t realize the time that you have to put in to study to be on top of your game. I have to do some extra studying.”
The same goes for Jones, who hasn’t thrown a meaningful pass since last New Year’s Day when he threw for 277 yards and three touchdowns in a comeback victory over Browns while filling in for Roethlisberger during a meaningless season finale. Jones jokingly said he could “neither confirm nor deny” whether he’ll play this time, though he will almost certainly get snaps.
Unlike last time out, there are actual stakes. The Steelers could claim the top seed in the AFC with a victory and a New England loss to the New York Jets. The odds of both happening are long, not that it matters to Jones. His job will be the same as Roethlisberger’s: find a way to win. Now finishing his fifth season behind Roethlisberger, Jones has grown more comfortable even if his reps have come on the practice field instead of inside NFL stadiums since the end of training camp.
“I just think it’s one of those things where each year you gain more experience, the game starts to slow down more and more so just from last year to this year the game has become slower,” Jones said. “You just get used to the speed of everything.”