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JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner ruled out; Diontae Johnson to be cleared

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers will be without their top two playmakers when they face the winless Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.

Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner have been ruled out on the final injury report. Conner aggravated his shoulder injury in the first quarter of last Thursday night’s loss to the Cleveland Browns, and Smith-Schuster sustained a concussion and a knee injury. He was seen wearing a bulky knee brace on his left knee at the Steelers’ facility. Neither player participated in practice all week.

There is a bit of good news on the injury front, though. Wide receiver Diontae Johnson, who suffered a concussion on a helmet-to-helmet hit that left blood coming out of his ear, did not have an injury designation. He was still in the concussion protocol Friday afternoon, but because he wasn’t listed on the report, he’s expected to be cleared for Sunday.

The Steelers (5-5) will have a wide receiver corps of Johnson, James Washington, Tevin Jones, Deon Cain and Johnny Holton. Cain was signed from the Indianapolis Colts‘ practice squad five days ago, and told reporters Friday he took first team reps in practice during the week.

With Conner out, running back duties will be handled by Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell Jr., who returned from knee surgery this week. Snell missed three games after suffering an injury against the Miami Dolphins.

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Jerry Jones questioning lack of success after 3rd consecutive loss

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CHICAGO — Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones did not make any proclamations about changes to Jason Garrett’s job status after Thursday’s 31-24 loss to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, but he did question why the roster is not producing results.

“These guys are mentally OK for me and all these guys are talented enough for me, so that’s good,” Jones said. “I’m questioning how to put together a coordinated one that complements each other, how to put together a team that can win a football game. … We’re not collectively getting together as a team and doing the things it takes to win ballgames.”

Instead, at 6-7, the Cowboys are mired in their second three-game losing streak of the season, despite a mostly healthy roster.

“It’s leveled out here. It’s losing, losing, losing. I’m not trying to be funny here but the point is we’ve got to win a football game,” Jones said. “I don’t care what the standings are, what the numbers are. We had thought that we could come up here and play a good team, play a fine football game and get our act to where we’re starting to look like a team that could — if we by the slim chance get in the playoffs — where we could win. We can’t do that until we play and start winning the football games and we’ve got three more to play. When we do that, we can go.”

Thursday’s loss was a disillusionment. After driving 75 yards on 17 play on their first drive for a touchdown, the offense stalled until the fourth quarter when the game was out of hand. The defense forced a takeaway for the first time in four games on the opening possession, but gave up scores on the next four possessions in the first half.

The Cowboys scored 17 points in the fourth quarter to close the gap but that did not impress Jones.

“We know that the score didn’t indicate how bad they beat us tonight,” Jones said.

Garrett’s job security has been an issue since the opening of training camp since he does not have a contract past 2019 and will continue to be a bigger topic in the final three weeks.

Garrett said he believes the players are still buying in.

“I just see how they come to work every day,” Garrett said. “I see how they practice and unfortunately we didn’t carry the practice work to the game.”

Nor did Garrett see any players quit.

“I don’t believe that,” the coach said.

The Cowboys will remain in first place in the NFC East even if Philadelphia beats the New York Giants on Monday based off their October win against their division rival, but this was a season that was supposed to be about more than making the playoffs.

Now Jones does not care if the Cowboys finish 7-9 or 8-8 and make the postseason.

“Are you asking me if I would take the division and go to the playoffs, if we got in on any basis? The answer is yes. Absolutely yes,” Jones said. “Acceptable? I don’t know. Not if we’re not playing good but if we’re playing a lot better than we played tonight, I’ll take getting in. (Are) you talking about getting in the playoffs? Well, yes, I would on any basis. I realize if we don’t play better in the last (three games) than we looked tonight than that’s tough to thinking about having success in the playoffs, but your goal, the first goal is to get to the playoffs.”

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Bears fear linebacker Roquan Smith has significant pectoral injury

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CHICAGO — The rest of Bears linebacker Roquan Smith‘s season is in jeopardy.

Smith, Chicago’s leading tackler, suffered what is believed to be a significant pectoral injury in the first quarter of the Bears’ 31-24 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night.

“We’ll get more details in the next couple of days, [but] it doesn’t look real good for him,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said after the game.

Smith made contact with Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott as he crossed the goal line to cap Dallas’ opening 17-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Kevin Pierre-Louis replaced Smith on defense for the remainder of the game.

Chicago’s first-round pick in 2018 (eighth overall), Smith had a career-best 15 total tackles last week. The Bears are already without another starting inside linebacker, Danny Trevathan (elbow), who was replaced in the starting lineup by Nick Kwiatkoski.

Smith entered Thursday’s game with 99 tackles, two sacks and one interception on the season. As a rookie last season, he played in all 16 games and posted 122 tackles, five sacks and an interception.

“It could be a big loss,” Nagy said. “The way that Roquan has been playing the last couple of weeks, he’s been flying around and making plays. You just love that confidence that he’s bringing to the defense.

“The depth that [the front office] has created on their roster allows guys like Kevin Pierre-Louis to step up and make plays. You feel bad for Roquan but we know we have guys that can fill in. It’s a good thing to have that depth.”

Pierre-Louis finished the Cowboys game with five tackles, two pass breakups and one tackle for loss.

The Bears (7-6) next travel to Green Bay for an important showdown with the Packers in Week 15.

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Cowboys fall to Bears for 3rd consecutive loss, 6-7 record on season

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CHICAGO — Jerry Jones might not be in a position to keep Jason Garrett as Dallas Cowboys head coach anymore.

Thursday’s 31-24 loss to the Chicago Bears was the latest disappointment in a Cowboys’ season that has gone wrong but still has the potential to lead to a playoff appearance.

Jones has made only one in-season coaching change in his tenure as owner and general manager and, at times, Thursday’s game was reminiscent of Wade Phillips’ final game on Nov. 7, 2010, a 45-7 defeat to the Green Bay Packers.

The day after that loss Garrett was installed as interim head coach and has had the job ever since.

Thursday’s loss was the Cowboys’ third straight and as disheartening as any they have had because of what was on the line.

After the Thanksgiving Day loss to the Buffalo Bills, Jones said he would not make a coaching change and professed faith that Garrett was the right coach to change the team’s fortunes. Jones was envisioning the Cowboys running the table, winning the NFC East and becoming a threat to compete for a Super Bowl.

Given the performance Thursday, even Jones’ confidence has to be shaken with his team 6-7 with three games to play.

For the second straight game, the Cowboys’ offense opened with a first-possession touchdown. For the second straight game, things went downhill after that.

Like the loss to the Bills in which the defense allowed 26 straight points, they were scorched again, giving up 24 unanswered points to the Bears.

The Cowboys’ defense had a first-possession interception, its first takeaway in 263 snaps, but then gave up touchdowns on three of the next four possessions to close out the first half. The defense contributed mightily as well with three third-down penalties that kept Chicago’s touchdown drives alive.

The offense wasn’t much better. After opening with a season-long 17-play drive that covered 75 yards and ended on an Ezekiel Elliott touchdown run, the offense went six straight possessions without a score and gained just 57 yards.

Jones has remained more patient with Garrett than he has with any other coach. Chan Gailey was fired after making the playoffs in 1998 and ’99. Dave Campo was finally let go after three straight 5-11 finishes in 2002. Phillips made the playoffs in 2007 and ’09 but was doomed by a 1-7 start to the 2010 season.

Garrett is the second-winningest coach in Cowboys’ history to Tom Landry with an 83-66 record, but he has not gotten past the divisional round of the playoffs in three postseason appearances. He entered this season with a must-win mandate since he does not have a contract past this season.

A potential issue for Jones is who to make the interim coach even if he wanted to make the switch. In 2010, Garrett was the clear choice. In 2019, passing game coordinator Kris Richard, who calls the defense, and coordinator Rod Marinelli have presided over a group that has disappointed.

Despite entering Thursday with the top-ranked offense in terms of yards per game, with first-year coordinator Kellen Moore, the offense has bogged down in recent weeks.

If there is any optimistic bent to the Cowboys’ playoff chances, which might save Garrett’s job, it’s this: According to ESPN’s FPI, the loss dropped the Cowboys’ chances of making it to the postseason to just 70 percent. Had they won, their chances would have improved to 77%.

But is there any sense of confidence that the Cowboys can right all their wrongs before they play the Los Angeles Rams at AT&T Stadium on Dec. 15 even if Jones makes a change at head coach?

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