“Position flexibility.” It sounds like the title of a chapter from the Kama Sutra. Rather, it’s all the rage in today’s NFL. In the never-ending chess match between offensive and defensive coordinators, players who can line up in multiple positions and possess an array of skill sets are being valued like never before. These “Swiss army knife” types allow coordinators to employ a variety of packages without having to substitute, thereby nullifying the ability of opposing coaches to match personnel groups (i.e. – heavy for heavy, or speed for speed).
The Steelers 2018 draft was loaded with these types of players. Our two safety selections are quintessential “Swiss army knives.” Both Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen are run-thumpers who may spend as much time playing in the box at the linebacker level as they will as true safeties. They can each run and hit, and though neither excels in coverage, both should be efficient in cover-3 schemes where they will guard tight ends or short, out-breaking routes to the flat. Once the Steelers were unable to land a pure linebacker like Leighton Vander Esch or Rashaan Evans to replace Ryan Shazier, the trend towards position flexibility made Edmunds and Allen attractive options.
The same drafting philosophy is likely what led the Steelers to select NC State’s do-it-all back Jaylen Samuels. If I had to prioritize my level of enthusiasm for this year’s draft class, Samuels would be at the top of the list. Here’s why:
Samuels finished his NC State career with 201 catches for 1,851 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns. He added 181 carries for 1,107 rushing yards (a 6.1 average) and 28 touchdowns. That’s 47 touchdowns on 382 touches, which translates to a terrific rate of one score every 8.1 attempts. Obviously, Samuels had a knack for finding the end zone. That just scratches the surface of his abilities. To say he did a little of everything at NC State would be an understatement. The Wolfpack used him as a running back, a slot receiver, an H-back and a tight end. In reviewing some of his film, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an offensive player used so diversely. You see him run the ball out of the backfield and lower his shoulder to barrel over a corner who tries to tackle him high. You see him in the slot catching bubble screens and running away from safeties. You see him running wheel routes deep down the sideline. He catches the quick slant. He runs the jet sweep. He lines up at tight end and is the inside pitch man on shovel pass. He lines up as an H-back, motions across the formation and blocks the defensive end. He motions out of the backfield and catches a quick screen on the perimeter. He is the fullback in the I-formation and jolts the middle linebacker as a lead blocker. He splits out wide, goes one on one with a defensive back and makes a ridiculous leaping one-handed catch. He runs the Wildcat in the red zone. He throws a halfback pass for a touchdown. He punts the ball then runs down the field and downs the punt at the one-yard line (I made that one up, just to see if you were paying attention). The point is, Samuels is a weapon who can be deployed in a variety of ways. The more creative the coach is, the more a team can maximize his plethora of skills.
Enter new Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner. It is Fichtner’s job to figure out how to use his 225 pound running back who blocks like a fullback and catches like a receiver in a way that creates matchup problems for opposing defenses. How might he do this? Consider the following images of some of the Steelers 2017 personnel groups and formations for some suggestions.
First, we see an 11 personnel set (one RB, one TE and three WRs) in the season opener against the Browns. Cleveland responds to this look with a traditional 4-3, cover-2 defensive package that includes four down linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs with two deep safeties (not in the picture). The safeties are deep because it’s 2nd and 12, a passing situation, and the Mike linebacker, listed in the photo as LB2, is a full 8 yards off the ball at the snap.
Now imagine this same look with Samuels in the near slot in place of Eli Rogers. Given Ben Roethlisberger’s request for added input and flexibility in the offense, it’s a good bet Fichtner will allow him to audible if he gets certain looks from the defense. Here, with Cleveland in a soft box because they are playing pass first, Big Ben can check to a run and gain a numbers advantage by putting Samuels in short motion. A counter-gap run, for example, would look like this against that Cleveland front:
Because the motion is short, it gives Cleveland little time pre-snap to adjust their alignment. The Mike backer (LB2) may tighten up a bit, but his depth would still allow for a long double team by the right tackle and right guard on the playside DT, with the physical Samuels leading up to the Will backer. It’s an ideal picture from which to run the counter play.
Next, the Steelers are aligned in a no-back empty set. They have four wide receivers – AB, Juju, Rogers and Martavis Bryant – with Jesse James at tight end. Juju has come on to the field to replace Le’Veon Bell. The Browns have countered with a 3-3-5 Nickel package (three down linemen, three LBs and five DBs; the single-high safety is out of the frame).
Again, picture Samuels lined up in place of Rogers. This is logical because he can run all of the intermediate routes Rogers does from that alignment. Therefore, it is also logical the defense would counter with a Nickel package to combat the threat of five receivers. Except that Samuels is also a running back, which means the Steelers can motion him into the backfield to use a downhill run concept like Inside Zone against a defense that is plugging in a smallish Nickel defender (DB2) at the linebacker level. Something like this:
Again, the short motion prevents much of an adjustment by the defense, and now the Steelers have hat-on-hat blocking in the box with a tight end (James) turning out the nickel defender and the physical Samuels running downhill. On 2nd and 7, this is a great look against which to pound the rock.
Finally, we see the Steelers in a 12 personnel set against Jacksonville. There is one back, two tight ends and two wide receivers. The Jaguars are in their base personnel and have rolled a safety down (DB2) to defend the run with eight defenders in the box. They are in a cover-1 or cover-3 look with a single-high free safety (out of the frame).
It’s first and 10, and this look is ideal for play-action. The Steelers like to throw double-seam concepts against a one-high safety. The problem is Jesse James lacks the ideal speed to be an effective vertical threat. If we replace James with Samuels, however, we retain our ability to run the ball with a seven-man blocking surface (the seven blockers from McDonald to James) while adding a legitimate seam receiver. Remember, Samuels ran 4.54 at the Combine. That clocks better than James (4.7) and even Eli Rogers (4.66). With Samuels in place of James here, we can run the ball inside if a defense stays two-high and we can throw it vertically if they roll down and play one-high. A play-action concept like the one below would be tough to defend from the look Jacksonville is playing.
One could suggest the advantages I’ve shown here are hypothetical because defenses wouldn’t line up exactly as pictured if Samuels were on the field in place of Rogers or James. That may be true. However, defenses will need to identify Samuels as something - a running back, an H, a receiver - for purposes of sending in their own personnel groups. If he’s on the field with Bell and three other receivers, chances are pretty good a nickel package will be deployed to defend them. This creates an advantage for the Steelers in the run game. If he’s on the field with Bell, McDonald and two WRs, where old-school I-formation football or seven-man blocking surfaces are possible, defenses will likely counter with heavier personnel. Now, given the ability of both Bell and Samuels to play as receivers, the advantage is in the passing game.
With Bell’s contract situation still unsettled, it’s understandable that some fans feel dissatisfied with the Steelers not landing a pure running back in the draft as his potential replacement. I’m not suggesting Samuels is that guy, and if Bell does walk after this season we will still need an RB1 in the fold. For now, though, packaging Samuels with Bell makes it very difficult for defenses to feel confident matching personnel. I tend to believe the Steelers drafted Samuels with just this in mind. Because of the nature of the draft, whereby the worst teams get a shot at the best players, and the feeding frenzy that is free agency, pro football is less and less about talent disparities and increasingly about matchups. Some teams are obviously more talented than others, but for teams near the top of the talent pool, like the Steelers, it becomes about things like this: Can I get my big guys against your little guys? My quick guys against your slow guys? My best receiver on your worst defender? My best pass rusher on your worst pass protector? The chess pieces vary only so much from team to team. The game is in how they’re moved around the board. Bell, then, is the Queen, able to move vertically, horizontally, diagonally, possessing a skill set unlike any competing piece. Samuels, if used the right way, could be a poor man’s version. Together, the two could be a nightmare to defend.