PITTSBURGH — Jaylen Samuels isn’t sure when or how he’ll share the same backfield with James Conner on game days. Samuels just knows “little two-back sets” are going to happen at some point, and he can’t wait to see it.
“I’m pretty sure it’s going to be something special put into the offense,” Samuels said. “They will have us start off in the backfield or I can start out wide or motion out.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers have a proven Pro Bowler and an intriguing change-of-pace option to ignite the post-Le’Veon Bell era in earnest. Conner looks to build on his 1,470-yard performance in his first year as a starter, while Samuels is eager to prove he is more than a versatile pass-catcher.
One thing missing out of this backfield is elite speed. Neither running back cracked 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash coming out of college. But the offense proved with Bell that speed helps but isn’t necessary to thrive, relying on vision and a combination of stretch zone and power running game plans.
Feeling refreshed after knee and ankle injuries over the past two years, Conner is prepared for a workhorse role, but he wants to see his teammates shine too.
“I’ll have a similar role. I’m healthy, first and foremost; I’m 100 percent healthy now,” Conner said in a recent appearance with NFL Network. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. But we have talent in that room. We have Jaylen Samuels, who’s a tremendous receiver, a talented runner. We have Benny Snell. We know the work that he did at Kentucky. He’s a hard-bodied runner, so all those guys will get touches. It’ll be fun this year just seeing those other guys being successful.”
As far as load distribution, all Conner knows is he’ll have a big role. The particulars shake out week to week, and there’s not a set number of carries for anyone.
The Steelers typically have embraced the workhorse-back model. In Conner’s rookie year, he was second on the team with 32 carries. Not a single No. 2 tailback surpassed 100 carries in a season when Bell played 12 or more games. Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman in 2012 comprised the team’s last true split attack. DeAngelo Williams thrived when Bell was out of the lineup but didn’t play much when Bell was healthy.
Conner registered 215 carries in 13 games last season, with Samuels behind him at 56. Perhaps more importantly, their combined 81 catches for 696 yards essentially matched Bell’s 2017 receiving totals (85 for 655). Bell’s ability to get Ben Roethlisberger easy passing yards by slipping through traffic at the line proved lethal for an offense at its best.
Samuels is a natural pass-catcher, with Roethlisberger noting his soft hands on more than one occasion. But Samuels believes the Steelers want more for him — as the hiring of his former coach at NC State, Eddie Faulkner, to run the running backs room hints — and Samuels plans to capitalize.
Samuels has emphasized speed training for much of the offense, which he hopes will clean up indecision at the line.
“A lot of guys are fast. It’s all about speed,” Samuels said. “If I can build up my speed a little faster, I feel like I’ll be more decisive in and out of my cuts as a pure runner. I feel like I got faster. I can get in and out of my cuts a little bit better. Still have to work on my route running, my overall game.”
Conner has earned the trust of his coaches, and now it’s about keeping it. He shrugged off a sluggish rookie year by improving his conditioning, which showed with his bursts through the line. He has a knack for taking the yards available, then taking more.
But he also isn’t assuming anything. He likes the players behind him, and he is eager to watch Snell — who can “do it all,” Faulkner told reporters in June — in pads.
Conner makes clear he’ll have an edge in year three.
“In this game, you have to stay on the rise,” Conner said. “You’re either getting better or worse.”