Steelers turn to Samuels, Ridley with Conner out

PITTSBURGH — Jaylen Samuels doesn’t get caught up in roles.

Maybe because the one the Pittsburgh Steelers rookie is asked to fill seems to change by the week.

During his college career at North Carolina State he was a hybrid. Sometimes he’d serve as an H-back. Other times he’d line up at tight end. Occasionally he finds himself in the slot. Only rarely did he break the huddle as the featured running back.

It’s been much the same during his first year in the NFL. The fifth-round pick made the 53-man roster as a project of sorts, one with an enthusiasm for special teams and an appetite to learn.

On Sunday in Oakland, the guy who doesn’t like to label himself will wear a new one: starter. Samuels will fill in for the injured James Conner when the Steelers (7-4-1) play the Raiders (2-10).

Though coach Mike Tomlin plans to use a committee approach that will include a mixture of Samuels and veteran Stevan Ridley, the versatile Samuels will get the first opportunity.

“I’m going to still do the same thing: be me,” Samuels said. “I feel confident out there. They believe in me and I believe in them, so just go out there and have fun.”

Samuels struggled to adjust to the speed of the NFL game early in the season and didn’t get his first touch until a 33-18 win over Cleveland on Oct. 28. He scored his first NFL touchdown against Carolina on Nov. 8 when he took a short pass from Ben Roethlisberger and leapt into the end zone .

When Conner went out late in the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, Samuels came in and scored on a 10-yard touchdown reception to tie the game , beating a pair of Chargers defenders to the pylon in the process. Not bad for a 6-foot, 225-pounder who seemed to baffle NFL scouts because he didn’t fit into one specific category.

That’s fine by Samuels, who figures the harder he is to pin down, the better. He holds the N.C. State record for career receptions (202), heady territory considering the two guys who rank second and third behind him are former NFL wide receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Torry Holt. His ability to catch the ball makes him a good fit for the Steelers, who love to throw it to their running backs.

Yet Samuels understands if he wants to stick in the NFL, he needs to be productive when the quarterback turns and hands it to him.

“I want to be able to do a lot of different things,” Samuels said. “Being able to be a pounder or a speed guy — being able to pound between the tackles and show speed on the edges — so whatever presents itself, I’m going to try to go out there, put the ball in the right spot and try to help my team.”

And do it by getting in the end zone with regularity. Samuels scored 47 times at N.C. State, 19 receiving and 28 rushing.

“That’s just what I do: I score touchdowns,” Samuels said. “I’ve been scoring touchdowns all my life, throughout college and high school and now I’m trying to take it here to the National Football League. Once I get in there and my number is called, I’m going in there to make the best out of it and make the opportunities count.”

The same goes for Ridley. The eight-year veteran has played sporadically since the Steelers signed him last December after Conner’s rookie season ended with a knee injury. He’s carried 18 times for 51 yards this season, but knew eventually he’d get a shot. That’s just how it works in the NFL.

“It’s a long season, man, 16 games and postseason games, it’s a long year,” said Ridley, who won a Super Bowl with New England in the 2014 season. “That’s why you need to have 2-3 backs, so whenever it comes, if it comes, you have to be prepared and you have to go out there and handle business.”

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