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Jaylen Samuels latest cog in Steelers' plug-and-play run game

PITTSBURGH -- Jaylen Samuels never has had a 100-yard rushing game or a 19-carry workload in his football career, he swore after the Pittsburgh Steelers' 17-10 win over the New England Patriots on Sunday. Not at North Carolina State, where he was a hybrid option. Not at Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he played some safety.

That Samuels, a fifth-round rookie, just ripped off 142 yards against New England -- the most ever by a Steelers player against the Patriots, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- is a credit to both Samuels' development and a Steelers offense that has had success with a variety of backs.

Le'Veon Bell will seek an all-world contract for his All-Pro production, averaging nearly 130 total yards per game since 2013. His numbers are so prolific they prompted him to sit out the entire 2018 season to make sure nothing happens to them.

But when Bell's out of the game, the Steelers can get their numbers, too.

DeAngelo Williams rushed for 1,250 yards and 15 touchdowns on 298 carries from 2015 to '16, starting 14 games with Bell out.

James Conner, who's working his way back from a high ankle sprain, has 1,053 yards and 12 touchdowns on 233 career carries. Though Conner's production dipped in November, he was the AFC's most potent weapon in October and has a conference player of the month award to show for it.

In 12 games and two starts, Samuels has 201 yards on 42 carries.

Those three have combined for 2,504 yards on the ground while in Pittsburgh, along with 982 yards on 126 receptions. In a little more than two years of starter's work, that's nearly 3,500 yards -- not Bell-level production, but solid nonetheless.

Even Jordan Todman and Fitz Toussaint, who are both out of the league, combined for 123 yards on 28 carries in a 2016 playoff win over Cincinnati.

"That just shows we've had good running backs," guard David DeCastro said with a smile.

DeCastro doesn't need to say it, but one of the league's most consistent offensive lines, a high-level quarterback and weapons on the outside open rushing lanes for backs. What Bell did with those lanes won't be overlooked and will get him seriously paid.

But the Steelers' offense has made yards available for hard-working young players who are about 14 times cheaper than Bell, who passed on a $14.5 million franchise tag. Conner and Samuels, third- and fifth-round picks, respectively, play on combined salary of $1.058 million in 2018.

"Jaylen works hard, he doesn’t say much, he just goes about his business," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "In all phases we asked him to run it, blocking, catching it, he stepped up and I thought it was awesome. The line really opened some holes for him and helped things come to life, but how great was he? It was awesome. It was fun to watch him."

DeCastro calls Samuels a "fluid" athlete who's starting to get comfortable as a runner. Samuels came to Pittsburgh as a talented pass-catcher, a skill that showed up early in training camp, but the nuances of the tailback position -- timing through holes, picking up blitzes -- took some time.

But after the running game averaged 2.1 yards per carry in a Week 14 loss to Oakland, the Steelers gave Samuels multiple looks and angles, taking traditional handoffs out of the shotgun or receiving the ball off a toss play that proved effective. Pittsburgh ran Samuels to the right side for most of the first half, then pounded it to the left behind Alejandro Villanueva and DeCastro in the second.

"The run game was definitely working," Samuels said. "It didn't work too well last week, so we just had to bounce back. We had a good week of preparation. I just got back there and stayed relaxed. Once I saw a hole, I just tried to bust through it and make a play."

And that's the formula for the Steelers' running game, offsetting performance lulls with the occasional breakthroughs.

At least four Steelers backs have benefited from that.

As back-to-back draft picks, Conner and Samuels might just benefit for a while.