'Do whatever' to win: Steelers bring back the Wildcat

play
Stephen A. not encouraged by Steelers' win over Bengals (1:54)

Stephen A. Smith doesn't think the Steelers proved anything in their win over the Bengals, and wants to see them play more competitive teams. (1:54)

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is willing to admit the Wildcat formation is a little gimmicky.

It was also plenty effective in Monday's 27-3 win against the Cincinnati Bengals.

The numbers were hardly flashy -- seven direct snaps for a gain of 46 yards and a touchdown. The formation, however, gave the Bengals a look they weren't prepared for and allowed the Steelers the kind of positive offensive momentum they were unable to sustain during their 0-3 start.

Tomlin conceded, though, the Wildcat is hardly a permanent part of the offense, especially now that teams have seen the Steelers run it. But it doesn't have to be used heavily to be effective.

With this version of the Steelers, the one void of many Pro Bowl playmakers, it's about getting through games with the pieces available. Monday night, without tight ends Vance McDonald (inactive) and Xavier Grimble (injured reserve), the Steelers had to lean heavily on the running backs.

"We're given circumstances and the players available to us," Tomlin said Tuesday afternoon. "We'll shape a plan that puts us in a position to win this one with the current mix of players and under the circumstances, and I acknowledge that it could be different.

"We're just in a fragile state right now. We need to do whatever it is we need to do to move the ball and win football games."

Monday night, that meant calling on running backs James Conner and Jaylen Samuels to do a little bit of everything.

Conner led the team in rushing and receiving with 10 carries for 42 yards and eight receptions for 83 and a touchdown. Meanwhile, after failing to get a touch the week before, Samuels became only the second player since the 1970 merger with at least three completions, three rushes and three receptions in a game. Conner and Samuels played a crucial role in protecting second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph, who made his second start since Ben Roethlisberger's season-ending elbow injury.

"When you've got a young quarterback, sometimes you can assist them by turning a 70-play game into a 50-play game," Tomlin said. "I thought it was good for him to chew up some of those snaps to limit some of his exposure to the defense while putting the ball in the hands of some capable men and being able to produce some plays.

"It was good enough to gain some traction and keep us on schedule and put us in some manageable third downs and things of that nature. Off of it, we were able to stretch the field a little bit."

Samuels' responsibilities Monday night echoed what was asked of him at NC State under then-offensive coordinator Matt Canada.

"It was all the same, literally all the same," Samuels said. "Tight end pulling, looked like freshman year all over again. It was kind of crazy. When we got back on [the practice field last week], they said it was in the game plan. I got up for that. When I heard Wildcat, I knew it was time to go."

Samuels, listed as a tight end on his college roster, was a versatile weapon for the Wolfpack and used in just about every role imaginable.

Watching from his home in Topsail Beach, North Carolina, on Monday night, Canada saw the Steelers implement plays similar to what he used, ones like the Wildcat jet where Samuels flipped the ball to Conner for a 21-yard gain in the third quarter, which set up Samuels' first touchdown of the season a play later.

"Obviously he catches passes, he can run -- he's a powerful runner," Canada said. "He can block. He's such a smart player.

"He's just such a natural guy that he finds ways to do it. Way back when, we thought it'd be good to get him the ball and I'm sure the Steelers staff had the same ideas."

It also helps that Samuels' running backs coach, Eddie Faulkner, hired by the Steelers in January, spent five years on NC State's staff and was Samuels' position coach in college.

Conner was also familiar with the scheme, having been coached by Canada in his final year at Pitt.

"To have James and JaySam together, I was happy when that happened a year ago, and then Faulk gets to go up there and coach them," Canada said. "It's really fun to sit and watch and just be the fan."

This week, the Steelers' game plan will undoubtedly be different.

Tomlin is hopeful McDonald will return from his shoulder injury this week, and new tight end Nick Vannett, recently acquired from the Seahawks, will have another week in the system. That, combined with Rudolph's increasing comfort as the starting quarterback, will give Tomlin and his staff a different set of circumstances with which to plan. Maybe it will include more Wildcat, or maybe it won't. But the Steelers' willingness to give in to the gimmicks did exactly what it needed to by yielding the first win of the season.

"You can't run it every week, but it was effective Monday night and we'll see if we utilize it or utilize it in a different way this week," Tomlin said. "That's just the challenge of the National Football League, not only for us but for all of us. What people are working on, what they're ready to employ in detail and utilize against you changes week in and week out. That's exciting."