Jaylen Samuels ready for Steelers close-up with James Conner out

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers couldn't pick a better time for a rookie running back to be "on the rise."

Those are the words coach Mike Tomlin used to describe fifth-round pick Jaylen Samuels, whose pass-catching ability should pay off Sunday in Oakland as James Conner misses time because of an ankle sprain.

Maybe that rise coincides with Samuels' weekly preparation, which leaves him feeling comfortable running with the first-team offense.

"I've always got to prepare the same way, because you never know what will happen," said Samuels, who has 85 yards and two touchdowns on 19 touches, including seven catches for 54 yards. "I had to be 100 percent prepared like I was going to start. Keep doing the same thing I've been doing the last couple of weeks."

Veteran Stevan Ridley is second among Steelers running backs in rushing with 56 yards in 18 carries, but since Week 10, Samuels has 24 offensive snaps to Ridley's 10. When Conner left Sunday's loss to the Chargers, Samuels wasted no time producing with two catches for 14 yards in the red zone, taking a pass over the middle for 10 yards.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said on his weekly radio show on 93.7 the Fan that Samuels was his second option over the middle, signaling he has trust in the young player. The two shared a moment after the game-tying score.

Samuels was a versatile hybrid back in college, and the Steelers were intrigued by his receiving ability. Whether he can become a consistent rushing threat is still uncertain, but he looks natural locating the ball in the open field.

"Do what I've been doing all my life, getting in open space, catching the ball," Samuels said. "[Roethlisberger's] one of the best. He's smart. When you're out there with him, you can't do nothing wrong, really. You should feel confident to play fast. He makes you play fast."

If you think the Steelers weren't pass-happy before this week, imagine the dynamic with Conner out. Pittsburgh passes 67.21 percent of the time, second in the NFL to the Minnesota Vikings (67.31). Tomlin said he approved of the team's run-pass ratio, and Roethlisberger said on his show that no one in the building had an issue with it. The Steelers emphasize dictating pace depending on the matchup, and since the Chargers kept a safety in the box most downs, the Steelers passed 45 times compared to 17 runs.

Perhaps Samuels' strength as a receiver will make passing out of the backfield attractive, though Ridley's punishing running style up the middle gives the offense a different look. No. 3 back Trey Edmunds, elevated from the practice squad, had nine carries for 48 yards and a touchdown last season for the New Orleans Saints.

The Steelers will give all three players a chance to impress this week in practices.

Samuels will be ready, because he stayed ready.

"I've become more comfortable running with the 1s," he said.