The Pittsburgh Steelers are going to be without James Conner for the third consecutive game. Rookie Jaylen Samuels has started in his place for each of the past two weeks, but has gotten very different results on the ground each time. Which performance will his day resemble more today against the New Orleans Saints?
Samuels made his starting debut two weeks ago out west against the Oakland Raiders, but he was limited to just 28 yards on 11 carries. Though he managed 64 yards on seven receptions, the run game was clearly not effective on the day, even if it wasn’t all his doing, as the blocking was also at issue.
A week later, the run game looked like another team entirely. He saw 19 carries, more than he can ever remember having in any game he’s ever played, and he rushed for 142 yards—again, something he’d never done before, at any level. It was enough to earn him rookie of the week honors.
Several things are different this time, however. For one thing, they are playing a team that actually has a good run defense in New Orleans. But Samuels is also a different runner. Woefully inexperienced as a tailback heading into the NFL, it’s only natural that he would have a lot of learn and could potentially show growth early on during his playing time as a result.
So Samuels should be a better runner than he was even two games ago. But he will be back on the road, and facing what should be the best run defense of the three against whom he has started. The biggest question will be how his blocking performs, of course.
As the running back said this past week, he has a patient running style that relies upon reading and setting up his blocks. He can hit a hole once it’s there, but if the Saints are hitting him in the backfield, then it’s going to be a long day.
In which case, of course, they’ll air the ball out, as Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers have done more than anybody in 2018. The Steelers’ 594 passing attempts entering Week 16 are the most by 32. There are only 14 teams who even have 500 attempts so far, and only six who have more than 516 attempts.
The Steelers don’t have the fewest rushing attempts, but they do have the lowest running percentage in their run/pass ratio. So they can survive, technically, if Samuels isn’t having success on the ground. But it would certainly be helpful if he can have even half of the sort of success he saw last week.