I’m sure nobody expected Jaylen Samuels to be starting any games at running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers when they drafted him in the fifth round back in the spring—least of all himself. At the time they still had Le’Veon Bell as a potentiality, and James Conner was ready to be the number two back. There was still Fitzgerald Toussaint and Stevan Ridley.
Well, Bell never showed, Toussaint didn’t make the team, and he passed Ridley on the depth chart. With Conner suffering an ankle sprain, the team turned to Samuels, and while Head Coach Mike Tomlin questioned the notion that he was “confident” in the rookie heading into the past two games, the team stuck with him all the same.
He had just 28 rushing yards on 11 carries in his first start against the Oakland Raiders, who have a bad rushing defense. He did catch seven passes for 64 yards. But on Sunday against the New England Patriots, he ripped off six rushes of 10 or more yards, totaling 142 on the ground on 19 rushing attempts, in addition to 30 receiving yards on two catches.
What happened from the first game to the second? The blocking was much better, but Samuels also pointed out the changes in his own game that helped to produce the far better results.
“I felt like I wasn’t being patient enough, just being in a rush, hurry up and get to the hole and try to get there”, he told Will Graves of the Associated Press about his first start. On Sunday, he said, “I could definitely feel it all sorting out. The holes are just opening. I just felt smoother and it felt like it was more my game”.
One of the most notable plays of the Raiders game for me was one that didn’t officially count, wiped out by penalty. It was second and one at Oakland’s 41-yard line, and while a hold wiped it out, I can just recall Samuels continuing to run sideways rather than getting north and south and he ended up being tackled just behind the line of scrimmage.
“I was like, ‘what am I doing? Why am I going backward? I need to be going forward with the ball’”, he told Graves. Against the Patriots, he got two carries in short-yardage situations (three yards to go or fewer) and he converted both of them, both on second and one, picking up four yards and then 10.
With Conner still not yet ready to return to practice due to his ankle, it’s looking like there’s a good chance that Samuels starts his third consecutive game. He took a major step forward from his first two his second, but playing the New Orleans Saints’ run defense at home will be a major challenge.