As we will do every Saturday to get you ready for the week’s game, our X Factor of the week. Sometimes it’s a player, unit, concept, or scheme. The key area to watch in Monday night’s contest as the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Cincinnati Bengals for the first week of AFC North ball.
X Factor: Jaylen Samuels
Of course, to be the X Factor, you gotta touch the ball, something that didn’t go down last week, unless you count a reverse where he handed the ball to Johnny Holton. So this is as much about OC Randy Fichtner and company finding ways to give him the ball as anything but we’ve used Fichtner for this series already so I wanted to go in a different direction.
If there’s a week for the Steelers’ backs to get involved, it’s tomorrow night. The Bengals’ run defense is poor and their linebacking group might be the weakest unit of the entire team, even worse than their below average offensive line. Nick Vigil is their every down linebacker and graded out terribly while Preston Brown is ranked slightly better but is even less athletic.
These backs, especially Samuels in the pass game, should be able to take advantage. Split him out and create the one-on-one matchup. Or have him run an angle/option route of the backfield, use the linebackers leverage against him, and create space and a chance to run after the catch.
Almost inexplicably, despite being in pass-first mode at points in all three of those games (and against the Patriots, for almost all of it), Samuels has just two receptions through the first three weeks. The only place I’ve seen his face is on the side of a milk carton.
Sure, the team’s excuses make sense on a baseline level. The offense hasn’t been in a rhythm, haven’t sustained drives, and that hasn’t given them the chance to rotate backs out and keep fresh legs. James Conner isn’t breathing hard after a three and out.
Regardless, the approach has to change. The Steelers have a young QB, receivers having a tough time getting open, and a scheme that hasn’t exactly been friendly to either. But this is a must-win, meaning the personnel has to change and the Steelers have to show every wrinkle in the playbook. Coming back from 0-3 is bad enough. 0-4 is almost a statistical impossibility. Just one team in NFL history, the ’92 Chargers, have done it.
By the end of Monday night, win or lose, I’d love to see Samuels with at least five receptions. The matchup is ripe for the taking. This offense, as has been the problem all year, just hasn’t gone out and done it.