During the summer of his rookie season, especially once they got into the preseason, Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin was already publicly acknowledging his interest in finding ways to get rookie fifth-round running back Jaylen Samuels involved in the offense. Though it didn’t materialize, he suggested prior to the third preseason game that he might get some work with the first-team offense while they were in the game.
Samuels opened the year as the team’s number three running back behind James Conner—the surprise starter after Le’Veon Bell didn’t show up—and veteran Stevan Ridley, but by around the middle of the season, he had pass Ridley on the depth chart. The latter didn’t help his cause by fumbling, and he never really recovered from that.
During the early portions of OTAs, it seems as though the Steelers are toying with another look that could help to get Samuels more involved in the offense. A look that has both Conner and Samuels on the field together in the backfield.
He told Sarah K. Spencer of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the team practiced it “a little bit” last season, but it never made its way into an actual game. Obviously, we would know if it did, since we chart every snap of every game. Samuels took over 200 snaps in 2018, and in none of them was another running back also on the field. He did line up as a receiver three times during the preseason with another running back in the backfield. Conner was the back for one of those snaps.
“I think that could be kind of special with me and [Conner] in the backfield”, he told Spencer of the two-back look. “Me and him in the game, period. We’re just building on from that right now… He’s more of a runner and a catcher, as well, but I can get outside and run routes, as well. To have that dual threat with me and him in the game, it could be really scary for defenses”.
Conner started 13 games last season, missing three due to injury, compiling 973 rushing yards on 215 carries and another 497 receiving yards on 55 receptions. He recorded 13 total touchdowns, with 12 on the ground and one as a receiver.
As for Samuels, who started the three late-season games that Conner missed, he rushed for 256 yards on 56 carries, the bulk of which production came against the New England Patriots. He also recorded 199 receiving yards on 26 receptions, with three of them resulting in touchdowns.
It certainly remains to be seen whether or not this two-back look will actually make an appearance in a regular season game—it was used incredibly sparsely when they had Bell and DeAngelo Williams together—but in the post-Antonio Brown world, I could see most anything happening.