Kevin Gorman: Jaylen Samuels embraces increased ‘slash-fun player’ role for Steelers
To say Jaylen Samuels was a secret weapon for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season is an understatement, given even their coaches didn’t know what to call his college position.
Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner described Samuels a “tight end-slash-fun player that did fun things” at N.C. State, where he set a school record for career receptions. Samuels went to the NFL Scouting Combine as a tight end and was listed as a fullback when the Steelers selected him in the fifth round last year.
“Last year, at this point in time, Jaylen had never lined up in a real game and taken a real snap and run the ball,” Fichtner said, “… so that was a big change for him.”
So the Steelers didn’t know what to expect when Samuels was forced to start at running back because of James Conner’s ankle sprain — against the New England Patriots, no less.
And that includes Samuels.
The secret was out after he produced a workhorse effort in rushing for 142 yards on 19 carries and added two catches for 30 yards in the 17-10 victory last December at Heinz Field. It was the most touches by Samuels in a single game in his career — high school, college or the NFL — and he averaged 8.2 yards per.
“It gave me a lot of confidence, not just for that game but for the rest of the season,” Samuels said. “It gave the players around me confidence.”
After Samuels answered if he could handle handoffs, the next thing he had prove was whether he could provide pass protection. Fichtner noted Samuels was beaten on one block for a sack and whiffed on another blitz, although Samuels was quick to point out Ben Roethlisberger got rid of the ball.
“I was young,” Samuels said. “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.”
Even so, Samuels said he “knew that I messed up” upon missing a block that allowed Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy to burst through the middle to sack Roethlisberger. Even though there has been an emphasis on improving his blocking, Samuels knows the Patriots are going to test him.
The Steelers believe Samuels is ready to ace that pop quiz.
“I believe and I feel very confident if 38 is in there, he’ll block whoever they put in there,” Fichtner said, “and that’s a lot different than what I would have felt going into last year’s game.”
Safe to say, the secret is out on Samuels. The Patriots are well aware of what he can do. But that doesn’t mean Samuels won’t be a weapon for the Steelers this season.
Anticipating an increased role, the 6-foot, 220-pounder lost 10 pounds and appears noticeably leaner than last season, when he rushed for 256 yards on 56 carries and had 29 catches for 199 yards and three touchdowns.
Samuels said he gets out of cuts better and doesn’t get fatigued as fast. It showed in the preseason, when he averaged 6.3 yards per carry and broke a long run of 22 yards against Tampa Bay. The Steelers plan to take advantage of his versatility, whether it’s as a complement to Conner or as a pass-catcher.
“You can tell just by looking at him that he’s taking this job seriously,” Steelers left guard Ramon Foster said of Samuels. “It goes down to his execution and ours up front. Not only that, but we’ve got Conner this time around. It’s up to us to try to balance all of that and make sure we get those guys running, no matter who’s in the backfield.”
Whether he lines up in the backfield, the slot or split wide, Samuels knows the Patriots tend to try to take away their opponent’s top two offensive threats. Where their focus was on stopping Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster last season, it could be concentrated on both the backs and receivers this time.
“That would be my gameplan if I was playing against us,” Samuels said. “When I had the opportunity to make a play, I just tried to make a play.”
Thanks to how Samuels handled his initial opportunity, we can now call him a running back-slash-fun player who makes fun plays for the Steelers — against the Patriots, no less.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .