Jaylen Samuels had his hands full when he played the New England Patriots during his rookie season a year ago. Up until that point, he had not played much at all, and was starting just his second game, coming off a relatively unspectacular showing against the Oakland Raiders.
But the Pittsburgh Steelers running back has grown significantly since then—though not in size. He told reporters that he lost 10 pounds, which he believes will help him significantly this year. But his mental growth will be even more critical this time around.
Especially when facing an opponent such at the Patriots. Even though he was statistically productive when he had the ball—he generated 142 rushing yards on 19 carries and 30 yards on two receptions—he was in over his head in many ways, and he felt it.
“I was young”, he told Kevin Gorman of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in recalling that game. “There was a lot of stuff flying around. The Patriots do a lot of stuff to confuse you. They came out in a crazy kind of defense. They had my eyes all over the place. My eyes were in the wrong place”.
The area in which he was most negatively affected was when he was asked to stay in to play pass protection, which was infrequent, and he gave up his assignment twice. On one occasion, Ben Roethlisberger was able to get the ball out, but not the other, and the quarterback was sacked as a result.
He told Gorman that he knew he messed up on the play, but he and his coaches both believe that he has grown from the experiences he had as a rookie, particularly late in the year when the got the opportunity to get a lot of playing time. Randy Fichtner, the offensive coordinator, said of the second-year back that “he’ll block whoever they put in there”.
Even with the schematic confusion that New England created for the NC State product in that game, however, Samuels nonetheless cites it as a key turning point. “It gave me a lot of confidence, not just for that game but for the rest of the season”. And for the upcoming season as well.
And it also showed his teammates that he was a player who could be trusted not just to be on the field, but to play a critical role, who can function as that number two back behind James Conner and even run the offense for a full game as a spot starter, as he had to do last year.
That’s not to say they aren’t expecting some real growth from him this year. His efficiency numbers from a season ago look better than they ought to because of some outliers. As with Conner, they want to see more play-to-play consistency. And his first opportunity to show it, assuming he gets on the field much, will be at the site of, up to this point, his most productive night on a professional football field.