While there are a few players who are exceptions, or at least making a valiant attempt to be, the notion of the bell cow running back in the NFL has largely gone by the wayside during the current evolutionary cycle of the game of football at the NFL level. There are too many specialized roles, and too many snaps to take, for almost any one single player to wear every hat every time.
In other words, teams needs more than one skilled running back, even if their skills vary from one another. The Pittsburgh Steelers are hoping that they have at least two of them in James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, a couple of their draft picks from the past two years.
2018 was Conner’s first season as a full-time starter and he managed to near 1500 yards from scrimmage with 13 scores in 13 games. Samuels was a rookie who gradually became more equipped to play running back and managed to secure the backup role in time to start the three games Conner missed.
One of the biggest hurdles he had in advancing in his craft at the NFL level was understanding and executing blocking assignments, which is admittedly something that he continued to struggle with throughout his rookie season in spots. That was also true of Conner, however, who took major strides in his second season in that area.
One of the issues in that regard for Samuels is the simple fact that he never blocked traditionally as a running back—at least not more than a few snaps—in college. “I was blocking defensive backs and safeties”, he told the team’s website about his college career. “I was always split out. I didn’t have to block anyone inside the box. Trying to block a 240-pound linebacker vs. a defensive back is different. It’s all about technique”.
Of course now he is being asked to block defensive linemen and linebackers, who are not only bigger but also have a greater understanding and experience in rushing the passer. It’s a more difficult assignment all around, but one he’s committing himself to mastering.
“How you attack it depends on how great you want to be”, he said. “It’s tough. But when I work out I work on my craft every day. Not every day is pass blocking. Some days are speed, some are power, some my football craft.
“I work on blocking drills on my own. Keeping my base square. Do drills to keep my feet in place so you can have a base when you make contact with somebody. Working on hand punch. Just getting upper body strength up”.
All of it ultimately contributes to one unifying goal, which is being the best possible running back he can be. While he has ambitions of even being the starter, he knows he is working with Conner, and is hoping to shoulder as much of the load, in as many roles, as possible.