Things began with a great game-plan from coordinator Randy Fichtner, who found creative ways to get the ball to his play-makers and devised a scheme his young quarterback, Mason Rudolph, could execute. Rudolph, for his part, was excellent in his second pro start. He looked poised and in control while completing 24 of 28 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns. New acquisition Nick Vannett was quietly effective and brought stability to a tight end position badly in need of it. James Conner was a huge asset in the passing game and ran hard between the tackles. The offensive line gave Rudolph nice pockets from which to throw. The much-maligned receiving corps even managed to get open and catch the football.
As good as those individuals and units were, the player I couldn’t take my eyes off of was Jaylen Samuels. One week after being oddly omitted from the game-plan in San Francisco, the versatile running back was a true Renaissance Man in Fichtner’s re-imagined scheme. Samuels lined up in the backfield and ran the ball out of traditional looks. He took direct snaps from the Wildcat. He flipped short passes to players in jet motion. He lined up as an H-back in bunch sets and as a slot receiver in spread sets. He even aligned as a fullback in a two-back set and motioned all the way out to the flanker position. All told, Samuels touched the ball 19 times, accounting for 26 rushing yards, 57 receiving yards and, believe it or not, 31 passing yards (those little flips from a quarterback to a receiver in jet motion count as passes because the football is technically tossed forward). Samuels also scored on a two-yard run to culminate an eight play, 75 yard possession to open the second-half that may have been the Steelers’ best drive of the young season.
Fichtner was so creative with how he used Samuels that I found myself searching for #38 every time the Steelers broke the huddle. Where will he be? What will he do? Many at BTSC have been clamoring for Fichtner to involve Samuels more in the offense. For one night, at least, Fichtner complied. Here’s a look at the myriad ways in which he employed his talented second-year back.
Late in the first quarter, Fichtner started with what seemed like an endless array of jet sweep looks. On this one, he aligned Samuels as the tightest receiver in a bunch set to the boundary. This is traditionally the H-back spot, where a tight end or fullback aligns so they can be used to block down on sweep, pull on counter or kick the back side on zone. Using Samuels here allowed Fichtner to get Cincinnati to roll their strength into the boundary (notice the safety walked down to the 30 yard line at the snap) and to run back away from it. The line zone-blocked left while Rudolph flipped the ball to Samuels going right. This created a “cross-read” for the linebackers (backs and linemen flowing in opposite directions) and slowed their pursuit. Meanwhile, on the play-side, tight end Zach Gentry did a nice job arc-blocking onto linebacker Nick Vigil and Samuels, who was left one-on-one with corner Dre Kirkpatrick, cut up inside for a first down.
The beauty of this simple design is that it created a variety of options off of the jet motion that Fichtner could dial up based upon the reaction of the defense. If the backers all flowed with Samuels, Fichtner could run Conner into the boundary. If the safety and corner bit hard on the jet action, he could throw over the top to the remaining receivers in the bunch. If the play-side safety rolled down to defend the jet, he could run the 6’8 Gentry on a corner route. Fichtner didn’t need to run these specific options Monday night (he had other ideas in mind, as we shall see), but by using Samuels, a pure running back, as the jet man the Bengals were forced to commit to the run action. This should open up vertical opportunities down the road.
RECEIVER OUT OF THE BACKFIELD
Here are two examples of how Fichtner got Samuels the ball as a receiver out of the backfield.
Early in the second quarter. the Steelers again aligned in a bunch set but this time with Samuels behind Rudolph as an I-back. They motioned Juju Smith-Schuster across the formation (the GIF begins at the tail end of his motion) and Rudolph reverse-pivoted away from center. The motion and reverse-pivot were clever bits of play design as each drew the linebackers (55 and 52) towards the action. Rudolph then booted back away, where Diontae Johnson ran off the corner with a vertical route and Vannett, who would traditionally have been the flat receiver here, stayed in to seal the edge. This removed a potential defender coming right into Rudolph’s face and gave him more time to make a decision on where to go with the football. The decision was easy. Samuels slid out of the backfield to become the flat receiver and was wide open. Rudolph dumped him the ball for an eight-yard gain.
This is essentially a bootleg pass but, rather than fake to the back and have the tight end slam the edge defender before releasing into the flat, Fichtner chose to block the edge, slip Samuels to the flat and create bootleg action by having Rudolph reverse-pivot. Juju, by the way, came back underneath the formation at the snap, suggesting he was getting into position for some sort of shovel pass. The Steelers traditionally run shovel off of Power blocking, but here the line blocked outside zone to get the backers flowing away from the play-side. I’m guessing, had one of the linebackers chased Samuels to the flat, that he would have turned his route up the field into a wheel and Juju would have become a secondary flat receiver for Rudolph. The entire scheme was cleverly designed by Fichtner, one of many such schemes he conceived on the night.
The next GIF shows Samuels as a true outlet receiver. The Steelers, lined up in 11 personnel with a Trips look to the right, ran three vertical concepts with Vannett sitting down in the hook zone to the right of Rudolph. The Bengals dropped seven into coverage and bracketed the vertical routes with backers (underneath) and DBs (over the top). Rudolph, with his eyes presumably downfield, could not find an open receiver.
Fortunately, the Steelers had no problem protecting him. They used a four-man slide with everyone moving a gap to their right while left tackle Alejandro Villanueva locked on to the defensive end. In this protection, Samuels was assigned the left B-gap, meaning the space between the left guard and tackle. If a backer blitzed or a lineman twisted there, Samuels would pick him up. If not, he would look to chip the end to help Villanueva and would then release into the flat.
This is precisely what Samuels did. The backer didn’t come, the line gave Rudolph time to look downfield and Samuels chipped and released. Rudolph found him with the football and from there Samuels did what he does best — make people miss in the open field. For a big back (Samuels is listed at 225 pounds), he has an uncanny ability to elude defenders in space. Vigil, the Bengals linebacker, barely got a finger on Samuels as he shook past him to convert a first down.
There was nothing particularly sexy about this play, nor about the previous two GIFs. But all were smart play designs, were simple for Rudolph to execute and demonstrated how effective Samuels can be in space. Most importantly, they all resulted in first downs that kept the chains moving and helped their young quarterback develop confidence. Samuels, the most versatile player on this Steelers offense, is ideal in that regard.
Perhaps the most compelling way Fichtner used Samuels on Monday night was to line him up as a quarterback in the Wildcat. Here is one of my favorite plays of the evening:
Fichtner aligned Samuels by himself in an Empty look with an extra tackle (Zach Banner) and Gentry in a heavy wing formation to the top of the screen. Conner and James Washington, meanwhile, were bunched together at the bottom (Mason Rudolph, for his part, stood harmlessly along the sideline with an obligatory Bengal defender lined up across from him, making this a de facto version of ten-on-ten football).
The Steelers dialed up the same exact play highlighted in the first GIF above, where Samuels ran the jet sweep. Except now, with Cincinnati likely expecting some sort of power run to Samuels on the direct snap, or a jet-read play perhaps, Conner became the sweep player and Samuels occupied Rudolph’s role by flipping him the football. The line zone-blocked left, Banner and Gentry widened the edge defenders with their reach blocks and Conner cut nicely up the field and stampeded his way to the two yard line.
On the very next play, this happened:
Same personnel group, same formation, same jet action from Conner. Except now, rather than flipping him the football, Samuels pulled it. Banner and Gentry blocked down this time, caving in the two Bengal defenders attempting to pinch into the C and D gaps, and the threat of Conner sweeping to the edge caused safety Jesse Bates (#30) to widen. Samuels waltzed through a gaping hole on the right side of the formation and into the end zone.
All told, the Steelers ran seven plays with Samuels in the Wildcat for 46 total yards (an average of 6.6 yards per play) and a touchdown. Each of the plays used similar motions and blocking schemes (with slight variations), which suggests the package Fichtner had in was limited. Still, the Bengals did not seem prepared for it. Expect Baltimore to defend it more effectively next week.
Expect Fichtner to expand the package to include new wrinkles as well. Putting Samuels in the Wildcat with heavy personnel on the field stresses a defense by making them defend nine run gaps. With Samuels as a runner, that requires all ten defenders to commit to stopping the run, potentially opening up receivers for shots down the field. I’m not suggesting Samuels will suddenly start tossing the ball around like a true quarterback. But he did do this in college:
Might Fichtner work on some sort of pop pass to the tight end out of these Wildcat looks where Samuels fakes the jet sweep then dumps the ball over the defense as they flow aggressively to stop the run? Might he run Samuels on a QB sweep and have him read a corner on an RPO with a simple Go route from the receiver (that’s essentially what Samuels does in the GIF above, minus the read component)? Stay tuned. If defenses are going to play downhill against the Wildcat, it wouldn’t shock me if Fichtner allows Samuels to throw a pass or two.
The way Fichtner employed Samuels Monday night was an ideal use of his skill set. Samuels can run the ball between the tackles if necessary but that’s not his forte. Getting him on the edge with sweeps and counter runs, throwing him the ball out of the backfield, lining him up in the slot, motioning him around the formation and, as we saw against Cincinnati, even deploying him as a Wildcat quarterback allows Samuels the space he needs to be most effective.
In these environments, the young running back thrives. He’s best as a cutback runner when motion, misdirection and deception are involved. When defenders are displaced from their run fits, Samuels exploits themem. And no one seems to bring him down on first contact in the open field. Fichtner would be wise to continue to seek ways to create these situations. In the absence of a dynamic play-maker like Antonio Brown, and with a young quarterback still learning his way, Samuels may be the X-factor this offense needs to bring the Steelers back into playoff contention.