Kevin Gorman: Jaylen Samuels adds dimension to Steelers' run game
Jaylen Samuels didn't have a defined position at N.C. State, so the Steelers rookie had an interesting answer when asked if he considered himself a running back, receiver or tight end.
D. All of the above.
“They used me all over the field, all of the positions you just said,” Samuels said. “It all depends on the different scheme we had that week, whoever we were playing.
“One game, I could be playing more running back than receiver, or it could be the other way around. They had me playing receiver, running back, tight end, wildcat quarterback.
“Normally, on third downs, I was playing receiver. Or, if it was third- or fourth-and-short, I would be in the backfield.”
When Samuels went to the NFL Scouting Combine, he worked out with the tight ends. When the Steelers drafted him in the fifth round, he was listed as a fullback. But Samuels is playing running back, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin called him “highly evolved in the passing game.”
Versatility is one reason Samuels is drawing comparisons to Le'Veon Bell. The 6-foot, 225-pound Samuels had more catches (201) than rushes (182) in his college career, so his receiving ability is viewed as his strength.
“Not to be cocky or anything, but I just feel like I have great hands, great route-running,” Samuels said. “As a runner, I can make guys miss in open space. That's kind of what I did in college, try to make guys miss in open space. They tried to get me the ball on the perimeter to get me against smaller guys. I just tried to get around them.”
Samuels knows that comparisons to Bell are inevitable, especially with the All-Pro running back missing OTAs and minicamp and expected to miss training camp for a second consecutive season after the Steelers placed the franchise tag on him.
But Samuels called it a “dream come true” to be selected by the Steelers because of how they “use their running backs in the slot to find mismatches,” he said, even though he “never thought I'd come here because we never really communicated” before the draft.
Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner even drew comparisons between the similar skill sets of Samuels and Bell, who rushed for 1,291 yards and nine touchdowns on 321 carries and had 85 catches for 655 yards and two touchdowns last season.
“What you can do is pop in a No. 38 and take a look at N.C. State and say, ‘What can he do that is like 26?' ” Fichtner said. “You say, ‘Wow, he can do that. He might not be able to do that. He's not ready for that but will be able to do that.' You can put him in those positions to do that.”
What impresses me is N.C. State's situational use of Samuels. Where he was more of a receiver on passing downs, the Wolfpack used him in the backfield in short-yardage and red-zone plays.
N.C. State running backs coach Eddie Faulkner was quick not to pigeonhole Samuels into one position but said the multipurpose back was best when he “gets the ball with shoulders square downhill or out in space.”
Samuels embraced his identity as a short-yardage back in a way Bell hasn't. If James Conner can stay healthy, he and Samuels give the Steelers a pair of backs who can run hard between the tackles.
“In the red zone, I have a knack for the end zone,” said Samuels, who scored 12 of his 28 career rushing touchdowns as a senior. “I was always taught when it's third-and-1 or fourth-and-1, you've got to put your head down. You can't go east or west. You've got to go north and south. You've got to get that one extra yard. Whenever I was in that situation, I knew I had to put my head down and become a power back instead of a speed back.”
It wasn't lost on Samuels that short-yardage situations have been a sore spot for the Steelers, an offensive weakness exposed in the playoffs.
In the 2017 AFC championship game, the Patriots made a goal-line stand on three plays from the 1 to force the Steelers to kick a field goal before halftime.
In the AFC divisional playoff, the Jaguars twice stopped the Steelers on fourth-and-short this past January. The Steelers were mocked for running a toss sweep on a fourth-and-1.
“I felt like they were lacking something,” Samuels said. “They didn't draft me for no reason. I'm just blessed to be here. Hopefully, I can help them win some championships.”
If Samuels can run as effectively in short-yardage situations in the NFL as he did in college, the Steelers can toss the fourth-and-1 sweep out of their playbook.