Did anybody give out a bold prediction for Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back Jaylen Samuels before this evening’s game against the New England Patriots? Because if so, you nailed it, needless to say. Making his second start in as many weeks in place of the injured James Conner, the fifth-round pick for the most part looked like a legitimate featured back against an admittedly vulnerable defense.
He was excellent on the ground throughout the night, rushing for 70 yards on seven attempts in the first half and then 72 more on 12 attempts in the second half. For those who stayed behind in math, that is 142 rushing yards for Samuels on 19 carries, averaging 7.5 yards per rush.
And he still contributed in the passing game, even if not as he did a week ago when he caught seven passes for 64 yards. He did have 30 receiving yards, however, on just two catches, including another explosive play that went for 20 yards.
It wasn’t just the success that he was able to have that made him look different on the day, however. It was the confidence and decisiveness in which he ran the ball that showed a significant leap forward from one week to the next.
A week ago, Samuels had just 28 yards on the ground despite seeing 11 touches from handoffs. And that didn’t even include a short-yardage play on which he lost ground that ended up being negated by a penalty. He tried too often to look lateral rather than getting up the field against the Oakland Raiders.
That was far less frequently the case tonight against the Patriots’ front, and when he did look to get out to the perimeter or cut a run back, he chose his moments much more carefully and found success when he did so.
It’s safe to say that we will be taking a deeper dive into his performance from this game—and yes, initial impressions say that the blocking went a long way toward that—but he definitely looked like a different runner, which is encouraging for the future. Perhaps he could be a legitimate backup to Conner going forward?
It’s worth remembering that Samuels didn’t really have a fixed position in college, and didn’t see a lot of traditional running back carries, often being used in different ways to get him into open space. The Steelers did a little more of that tonight than they did last week, and it worked out well.
He will only continue to get a better feel for the traditional running back role with the more touches that he gets, but already he has shown a surprising elusiveness given his body type. He definitely forced a couple more tackles to miss in this game.
With Conner expected to be back for the New Orleans game, he won’t be needed to shoulder the load, but now the Steelers should feel better about making use of him than they would have coming into the game.