“If only the Steelers had a viable backup plan at running back!” many may have said the night Pittsburgh fell to the Ravens in an AFC wildcard game at Heinz Field that followed the 2014 campaign.
The final game of the 2014 regular season was also at Heinz Field. The Steelers outlasted the Bengals on Sunday Night Football to claim their first AFC North title in four years. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh’s playoff fate was sealed before its AFC North championship was even a certainty thanks to a hyperextended knee suffered by all-everything running back Le’Veon Bell, an injury that put him on ice for the aforementioned wildcard clash with Baltimore.
Without Bell, who amassed over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and was the focal point of Todd Haley’s weekly game-plan (especially down the stretch), the Steelers offense was helpless against an always stout Baltimore defense.
The Steelers answer for a backup plan was unknown Josh Harris and has-been Ben Tate, which led to a less than potent ground game in a 30-17 loss.
If only LeGarrette Blount were still around and not off with the Patriots helping them win yet another Super Bowl. If only Blount wasn’t a total unprofessional with the Steelers (in more ways than one) and hadn’t left the field early and disgusted due to his lack of carries in an important win over the Titans on Monday Night Football.
Blount was the Steelers original “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” backup plan in the event Bell was injured.
Too bad Blount was Blount and not the consummate professional as the veteran running back who was willing to accept his role as Bell’s backup when he signed with the Steelers in the spring of 2014.
As they went free agent shopping in the spring of 2015, the Steelers needed not just a quality backup running back, they needed someone who could begin the season as the starter and not have it totally cripple their offense. Why? Because Bell was facing a two-game suspension to start the year. This is where Blount may have come in handy. Unfortunately, he was complicit in Bell’s suspension thanks to the two of them getting pulled over and cited for marijuana possession the previous August.
Thankfully for Pittsburgh, the Panthers were set to part ways with DeAngelo Williams, who would enter the open market with nine years of experience and over 6,800 rushing yards on his resume.
The Steelers quickly snatched the 31-year old up and hoped that he would not only be the veteran backup who was accepting of his role, but that he would also have a lot of tread left on his tires.
Turns out, Williams was a lot of both.
Williams proved to be a sound investment right away by rushing for a combined 147 yards and scoring three touchdowns in the two games without Bell.
But it would be in the second half of the 2015 season when Williams really saved Pittsburgh’s bacon. Bell suffered a season-ending MCL tear in a Week 8 loss to the Bengals at Heinz Field, and Williams was thrust to the top of the running back depth chart.
Over the final eight games, Williams posted 900 yards from scrimmage—including 613 rushing and 287 receiving.
All-in-all, Williams rushed for 907 yards on the year and led the NFL in rushing touchdowns with 11.
The offense didn’t miss a beat without Bell; Pittsburgh averaged over 30 points a game in the second half of the season, while posting a 6-2 record and just barely making the playoffs as the sixth seed.
Sadly, just like the season before, the Steelers lost their starting running back in the final regular season game—only this time, it was the backup to the starter—as Williams suffered a foot injury against the Browns.
While the Steelers unknown running backs represented themselves quite well with Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint combining to rush for 123 yards in a thrilling wildcard win over the Bengals, the truly decimated offense finally wilted the following week in a divisional round loss to the eventual-champion Broncos (Antonio Brown had to miss that game due to a concussion suffered at the hands of the Bengals’ Vontaze Burfict).
I often wonder what would have happened had Williams been able to start against Denver. This is just my opinion, but it’s likely the Steelers, who pretty much dominated up until then, would have been up by more than one point (13-12) when Toussaint fumbled early in the fourth quarter.
Actually, maybe the score is still 13-12, but does Williams fumble at such a crucial moment? It’s doubtful—consummate professionals rarely make such mistakes.
Thanks to a second suspension for Bell (this time for three games), Williams once again began the 2016 season at the top of the running back depth chart, totaling 347 yards from scrimmage as Pittsburgh got off to a 2-1 start.
After serving his suspension—and the Steelers getting manhandled by the Eagles in Week 3—Bell took to social media to proclaim that the juice would in-fact be loose in Week 4.
Say what you want about Bell, but he was right in that regard, especially down the stretch of the 2016 campaign. The Steelers receiving corps was really thin thanks to various injuries, and Bell was the ultimate workhorse, carrying the Steelers all the way to the AFC North title.
Bell continued to shine in the postseason, setting the franchise single-game postseason rushing mark with 167 yards in a wildcard win over the Dolphins, before breaking that record the following week with 170 yards in a thrilling victory over the Chiefs in the divisional round.
Unfortunately, due to a groin injury, Bell was severely limited and mostly a non-factor the following week against the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.
Fear not, the Steelers finally had a viable backup plan at running back!
Williams was okay against New England—he rushed for 34 yards and a score on the ground, while catching seven passes for 51 yards—but it wasn’t nearly enough in a 36-17 loss.
It was the last game Williams ever played in the NFL.
Williams only started 14 games in his two seasons with the Steelers, but he managed to gain a combined 1,735 yards from scrimmage—1,250 on the ground and 485 through the air—while scoring 17 touchdowns.
I’m sure Williams may have wanted to have more of a role in the offense even when Bell wasn’t injured or suspended. Thankfully, he never complained or tried to show his coach up through an act of defiance.
DeAngelo Williams was a consummate professional during his short time with the Steelers. He was also really, really good.
You can’t ask for much more than that.