Kevin Gorman: Jaylen Samuels goes from zero to hero for Steelers
The Cincinnati Bengals were stacking the box against Mason Rudolph, daring the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback to beat them on Monday Night Football in his first start at Heinz Field.
That’s when the Steelers revealed a new wrinkle to their offense, a package that initially appeared to be born out of desperation but one that had been part of the game plan all along.
Jaylen Samuels never touched the ball against the San Francisco 49ers but became the focal point of a wildcat formation that tamed the Bengals with a mixture of forward flips and keepers.
“When I heard wildcat, I knew it was time to go,” said Samuels, the second-year back who took direct snaps as a senior at N.C. State. “I just made sure I got into the film room, took notes on the details I needed to know and went from there.”
So, Samuels went from zero to hero, with his 21 touches accounting for 114 yards and combining with James Conner to serve as catalysts in the Steelers’ 27-3 victory over the Bengals.
This wasn’t your prototypical Steelers running game. You have to give offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner credit for his creativity, even if the Steelers looked more like a college program. The Steelers showed they were willing to try anything.
“It was like, ‘OK, this is a little different,’” Steelers right guard David DeCastro said of his reaction to the game plan. “Nothing’s really been working that well. Let’s try it out.”
The Steelers’ backs operated on a silent snap count to keep the Bengals guessing as to whether it would be a run or pass play and which back to focus on.
The Steelers rushed for only 66 yards — Benny Snell and Conner were stuffed on back-to-back and-one runs in the first quarter — but the formation allowed them to get the ball in the hands of their playmakers in the open field. And you can’t argue with the results, as Conner and Samuels accounted for 208 yards.
“We kept running it and kept executing it and they couldn’t stop it,” Samuels said, “so we just built off it.”
Where Conner rushed for 42 yards on 10 carries and had eight catches for 83 yards, Samuels finished with 10 carries for 26 yards and eight catches for 57 yards. Samuels also was 3 of 3 on pass attempts for 31 yards, including a 21-yarder to Conner that set up Samuels’ 2-yard scoring run early in the third quarter for a two-touchdown lead.
“Jaylen’s super talented,” Conner said. “He’s a natural at it. He’s had it in his background. He had a great day. He brought energy, passion and big plays to the game. We need that from him.”
What the Steelers needed most was to take the pressure off Rudolph, especially when the Bengals started the game by stacking the box with nine defenders. Defenses weren’t going to respect Rudolph until the Steelers proved they could run.
Once they did, the Bengals had no answer.
“It opened up the play-action,” Samuels said of the wildcat. “We did a lot of different things to keep the defense on their feet.”
And the Steelers offensive line knocked the Bengals backwards, keeping Rudolph clean in the pocket — he wasn’t hit, let alone sacked — and blocking for a steady supply of short passes alternating with the direct snaps to Samuels.
“Nothing with a young quarterback should surprise you,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “You know there’s going to be some wrinkles to help get him on track.”
The Steelers did just that for Rudolph, who completed 17 of 18 passes for 133 yards and a touchdown in the first half. By the second half, he started to take shots downfield. Rudolph connected with new tight end Nick Vannett for a 17-yard pass, then threw a 43-yard touchdown to a wide-open rookie receiver Diontae Johnson in the third quarter.
“We just took our shots,” said Rudolph, who completed 24 of 28 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns for a 124.6 rating. “We are still working towards maybe taking some more shots — and that is on me and that is what I am comfortable with.”
Whether the Steelers continue with the wildcat or return to a traditional run game remains to be seen. On this night, what mattered most was not who was taking the snaps but that the Steelers finally found a way to get their offense going.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .