The Pittsburgh Steelers are hoping to get running back James Conner back on the field for their final game of the season, an absolute must-win if their goal is to reach the playoffs. the second-year player has missed the past three games with a high ankle sprain, and the Steelers have lost two of those contests, including one to the Oakland Raiders.
Starting in his place has been Jaylen Samuels the rookie out of North Carolina State drafted in the fifth round this year. He had a big game in a win against the New England Patriots, but left something to be desired in each. Even in New England, his pass protection led to two sacks in a three-play sequence. He allowed another sack on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.
But for as much work that he still has to do to round out his game—offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner called him “just a baby when it comes to being a full-time running back—the team still envisions a role for him in the offense even when Conner returns.
That is what Fichtner was asked yesterday during his media availability, per the team’s communications department, and he affirmed as much. “No doubt” he has earned a role, the first-year coordinator said. “That was the spot we were originally trying to work him in also to be able to do—to be able to be that back that could give you some more dimension in the pass game, maybe take some situational football off of James’ hands”.
While Conner has caught 52 passes for 467 yards and a touchdown in 2018, and started off the season very strong in that dimension, particularly in terms of yards after the catch, it had become more of a struggle down the stretch. He had some high-profile drops and a big fumble on passing plays, and he hadn’t had 50 or more receiving yards in five weeks.
On the season, Samuels has now caught 19 passes for 159 yards with three touchdowns. That includes 12 receptions for 105 yards and a score over the past three-game stretch in which he has been starting. He caught just three passes for 11 yards on Sunday, but one of them was a touchdown.
“His growth is just beginning”, Fichtner said of Samuels, regarding whom he has been pretty consistently complimentary throughout the season. “There’s obviously a lot of room for improvement, but I am very pleased with where he’s at at this point”.
When Conner returns, it likely will mean that Stevan Ridley never sees the field. if Trey Edmunds is not released—and there’s no reason he would be, as he plays on special teams—Ridley may even be an inactive on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.