For the first time in a long time in a regular season game that actually matters, the Pittsburgh Steelers are heading into Sunday’s showdown with the Oakland Raiders without a featured running back with James Conner out.
Even when Le’Veon Bell was injured, the team had DeAngelo Williams to step in, and he had a Pro Bowl-worthy season of his own filling in for Bell in 2015. Of course, neither of them are here now, and Conner is on the shelf, leaving just Jaylen Samuels, Stevan Ridley, and the recently promoted Trey Edmunds.
While offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner was hesitant to place the ‘starter’ label on Samuels, emphasizing that both he and Ridley will be used, he couldn’t seem to help himself in his enthusiasm while talking about the rookie running back.
“You can’t undervalue guys who put the ball in the end zone”, he said of Samuels, who has two touchdowns on 19 career touches, and 47 during his college cavreer. “When you study guys in the draft and they’re putting balls in the end zone”, he went on, “that means they’re responsible for touchdowns. Especially a player like Samuels who has scored both as a receiver and runner.
“I think it’s inherent”, he said of the ability to score in football. “They have the ability to put the ball in the end zone. He’s been shown to do that. He’s taken little screens, little runs, he’s caught ball, nifty. He kind of just, if you will, smells the goal line”.
While he also talked up Ridley’s veteran presence, his excitement certainly appeared to be focused on the rookie. “I’m kind of excited about more playing time for him”, he said, adding that Conner and running back coach James Saxon were as well.
Fichtner has not been one to shy away from public self-criticism this year, so it wasn’t surprising that he offered some of that as well. In discussing the running back situation, he lamented not getting more work for the backs behind Conner earlier in the year.
As he discussed the roles of Samuels and Ridley and how “there will be some play within it”, he acknowledged that you won’t “have a chance to just see one, kind of like you have in James and kind of how we used to do [with Bell]. Sometimes maybe you wish you wouldn’t have had him in that much and got more guys in”.
That is something that they did on Sunday. Though Ridley did not play, Samuels saw 15 of his 17 snaps prior to Conner’s injury, so Fichtner was working in a second back, that being the rookie as he has gained more trust from his coaches.