Jaylen Samuels had 56 rushes and 26 receptions as a rookie, combining for 82 touches in his first season with the Pittsburgh Steelers a year ago. Granted, the bulk of that came in the three games that he started toward the end of the season, but it’s illuminating when considering the fact that, through three games, the second-year running back has just seven touches in 2019.
Including zero on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. Four of his seven touches came against the Seattle Seahawks in Week Two, and that was a game that starter James Conner was unable to finish due to an injury, so Samuels had to play the last several snaps of the game anyway.
“As a running back you always do want to run the ball more, but whatever the team needs to do to win, we are willing to do”, he told Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review while speaking to reporters from the locker room yesterday.
While the Steelers have not been active at all with the running game this season—they rank 30th in total carries around the league, and 29th in yards—Samuels is also an accomplished pass-catcher from the position (though he does have a drop already this year), and he only has two catches on three targets for 15 yards.
The team has displayed that ‘pony’ backfield in a couple of games now this season, something that they talked about during the offseason as a way to get Samuels more opportunities, but they have yet to do anything meaningful with it.
Whether it was Conner or Samuels or whoever else might have been asked about it during the Spring, there was an impression mounting that the Steelers wanted to explore a more diverse backfield this year, but we certainly are not seeing that yet.
I’m not arguing either for or against greater variety in personnel from the backfield, or saying whether it would be good or bad, but regardless of which side of the argument one might fall under, there is no debate over the fact that we are simply not seeing it.
Samuels told Adamski that the Steelers do have different packages, different plays that they call for all three of their running backs, including rookie Benny Snell, who did have three carries on Sunday against the 49ers. “We have our own packages where we go in with certain personnel, so when something is called, you have to run and do your job”.
Yet Samuels’ skill set probably lends itself well to the Steelers’ most-frequently used personnel groupings, since he’s the best receiver from the running back position on the team. Are they going to continue to stick with Conner, even as they slowly work in Snell? Or will the second-year back get his chances? Even toward the end of last season when Conner was healthy, they found opportunities for Samuels.