Steelers rookie Jaylen Samuels thrives in debut as featured back
Experience wasn’t on Jaylen Samuels’ side when he stepped onto the grass at Heinz Field against the New England Patriots.
In high school and four years of college, Samuels never was asked to be a workhorse running back. He mainly caught passes as a receiver or tight end. When he got the occasional carry, it was sometimes as an H-back, sometimes while working out of the wildcat formation. Never as a featured tailback.
It wasn’t until the Pittsburgh Steelers’ biggest game of the season that Samuels was asked to put his lack of pedigree aside and make up for any shortcomings with heart and determination.
The rookie fifth-round draft pick was more than up for the challenge, rushing for 142 yards on 19 carries Sunday while helping the Steelers save their season with a 17-10 victory against the Patriots.
Samuels also caught two passes for 30 yards, including a crucial third-down grab that went for 20 yards while the Steelers were trying to run down the clock in the fourth quarter while protecting a 14-10 lead.
“I thought his whole game was awesome,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “He caught the ball. He ran. There is still room for improvement, but there is for all of us. The way he stepped up was special.”
Samuels got his second career NFL start because of James Conner’s high ankle sprain. Starting ahead of veteran Stevan Ridley, Samuels showed he was more comfortable in a prominent role than the previous week when he was held to 28 yards on 11 carries in the Steelers’ 24-21 loss at Oakland.
“I knew how big this game was for us and our organization,” Samuels said. “I just wanted to go out there and give them my all. I didn’t want to have any letdowns with James being out.”
When Samuels was selected in the draft, he joined the Steelers as the third (or fourth) option at tailback behind Le’Veon Bell, Conner and perhaps Ridley. He moved up a notch when Bell decided to skip the season, and he got the nod over Ridley when Conner was injured late against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Samuels was inactive for the first two games and then totaled 12 carries over the next 10 games. The 19 carries he got against New England represented a career high at any level, Samuels said, as did the 142 yards rushing. It also was the most work for a Steelers running back since Conner had 24 rushing attempts Nov. 4 at Baltimore.
“You get a chance to shine, and he did,” guard Ramon Foster said. “We blocked well, but he actually found a lot of good holes today. I’m happy for him. I really am.”
At Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte, N.C., Samuels said he never had such a productive — and workmanlike — game. The closest perhaps was in the 2013 NC 4-AA championship game when he rushed for 99 yards and three touchdowns. Even then, he was just as productive as a receiver with 114 yards and two scores.
“I played everything,” Samuels said. “I played mostly receiver. I was in the slot. They put me at wildcat quarterback, running back. … They just always tried to find a way to get me the ball. That’s just how it was going into college.”
In four years at N.C. State, Samuels surpassed double digits in carries just once in 50 games with a high of 12 attempts. He never gained more than 74 yards rushing in a game while setting a school record with 202 career receptions.
Samuels attended the NFL Combine as a tight end, but the Steelers saw his potential as a runner. That was on display against the Patriots when Samuels used his instincts to find open spaces in the defense, often by hitting the perimeter.
On more than one run, Samuels started on the right side of the formation, then sprinted around left end for big gains.
“It was just getting on the blocks, reading the blocks and setting them up as well,” Samuels said. “That’s the main thing I’m trying to work on in my game as a runner, transitioning to a true runner.”
Samuels did some of his best work — as a runner and receiver — on the Steelers’ final drive. He gained 5 yards each on back-to-back carries to provide the Steelers with a first down. Then, it was his catch on third-and-9 that gained 20 yards and put the ball near midfield. As he ran free down the sideline, Samuels had the presence to stay inbounds and keep the clock running.
On the next play, Samuels broke off a 15-yard run to the Patriots 39. It helped set up Chris Boswell’s 48-yard field goal that hiked the lead to seven points.
“They were just saying, ‘Protect the ball,’ ” Samuels said. “That’s the main thing I was thinking about, just protecting the ball. I was just staying relaxed because I didn’t want to be too tensed up to protect the ball and not hit the hole to get a first down. I was trying to be relaxed, do what I do and do what I’ve been doing all game.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.