The Pittsburgh Steelers didn't want a repeat of last year's 30-17 opening round playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens. That's why the team signed veteran free agent running back DeAngelo Williams to back up All-Pro Le'Veon Bell this past offseason.
Williams offered the Steelers a reliable and affordable option in the wake of Bell's two-game suspension at the beginning of the season, and insurance in case of another Bell injury . Sure enough, Bell sustained a season-ending MCL tear in the Week 8 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, and Williams assumed the starting duties for the second half of the regular season.
In the Week 17 matchup with the Cleveland Browns, it was Williams who sustained an injury, exiting the game in the first quarter with a right foot injury. Now it will be up to second-year pro, and former un-drafted free agent Fitzgerald Toussaint to carry the load heading into Saturday night's Wild Card showdown with the hated Bengals.
The Steelers are now in a situation similar to the one they were in last year heading into the opening round playoff game against Baltimore: being forced to start a third-string running back they picked up off the street against a fierce AFC North division rival in a primetime playoff game. It's certainly not an ideal scenario, but it's the situation Pittsburgh finds itself in with Williams' uncertain status.
The good news is that Toussaint has spent significantly more time on the roster than free agent Ben Tate had prior to starting against the Ravens last year. Tate participated in just four practices heading into the game, and it showed.
Toussaint was signed to the Steelers practice squad on September 7, following his release from the Ravens on September 5, and was promoted to the active roster on November 27. The Michigan product then made his Steelers debut on December 6, carrying the ball four times for 12 yards in a 45-10 blowout win over the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football.
Last Sunday, Toussaint rushed twelve times for 24 yards in the 28-12 playoff-clinching victory over the Browns. He didn't run particularly well, but he did display the ability to help protect Ben Roethlisberger against the blitz. So much of football is mental, and it was Toussaint's ability to pick up the playbook that enabled him to leap frog fourth-year pro Jordan Todman on the depth chart.
A major part of being an effective NFL running back involves blocking for the quarterback. It's not a sexy job, and it isn't talked about often, but both Bell and Williams are excellent in pass protection. Whether it's butting heads with a linebacker blitzing through the A Gap, or chipping a defensive end coming off the edge, they're each among the best in the league at what they do.
It was an up-and-down performance by Toussaint in Cleveland on Sunday. He averaged just 2.0 yards per rush, and failed to pick up blitzers on more than one occassion, but he looked more comfortable as the game went on.
In the above GIF, we see Toussaint whif on an attempted block on middle linebacker Karlos Dansby. Initially, Toussaint is in a great position to make the block, but he's confused by Dansby's stunt. It appears Dansby will attempt to follow Paul Kruger through the gap between right guard David Decastro and center Cody Wallace. But Dansby sees Toussaint shuffle to his right, and loops into the gap between Wallace and left guard Ramon Foster. By the time Toussaint reacts, it's already too late, and Dansby is able to get a free shot on Roethlisberger.
As the game went on, Toussaint began to make positive contributions to the Steelers offensive effort. On more than one occasion he stoned blitzing linebackers in their tracks.
In the second GIF, we see Toussaint pick up linebacker Christian Kirksey, who is blitzing off the left edge. He stands up Kirksey, giving Roethlisberger enough time to find an open Antonio Brown down the field.
Toussaint diagnosed the defense, understood his assignment, and used his solid 5-9, 204 lbs. frame to stuff Kirksey on the play. Plays like this are the reason Tomlin and Haley have expressed confidence in the young and inexperienced back.
"I thought he did a rock-solid job," Tomlin told Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I am not surprised by that. He is a diligent worker. He brings a business-like approach. I think he's one of those guys that everybody is excited about seeing play. They are excited about seeing him get an opportunity because he's a guy that doesn't say much. He's extremely low maintenance. He really works hard to put himself in position to be a positive asset to us when given the opportunity. He was given that on Sunday, and he delivered."
In the last GIF, Toussaint chips Dansby, knocking the linebacker on his face.This allows Roethlisberger time to throw an 18-yard touchdown strike to Brown down the seam. Those precious seconds are often the difference between a touchdown pass and a sack.
Head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have accepted Toussaint's limitations as a runner, because they know he can help keep their superstar quarterback upright in the face of a formidable Cincinnati pass rush.
When Roethlisberger is healthy, and has time to stand in the pocket, he's as good as any quarterback in the league. Without Bell around to carry the load, the Steelers offense has relied heaily on the arm of Roethlisberger throughout the second half of the season. He ranks first in the NFL in yards per game (328), third in yards per attempt (8.70) and fourth in completion percentage (68.0).
Pittsburgh will need to keep Big Ben healthy and give him time to make long throws in order to make a deep playoff run. This is why Toussaint's ability in pass protection and knowledge of the playbook is so important.
Toussaint doesn't possess the athleticism and play-making ability of Williams, but he's shown he's capable of protecting Roethlisberger. If the Steelers are able to just run the ball effectively enough to force the Bengals front seven to play honest, it will help keep Roethlisberger upright, and should give them a great shot at advancing to the Divisional Round.
Following the injury to Williams, the Steelers signed running back Abou Toure to the practice squad. They also have the option of promoting running back Raijon Neal from the practice squad.
While Williams hasn't been officially ruled out, Steelers fans should expect to see Toussaint getting the bulk of the snaps on Saturday night, with a sprinkling of Todman as a change of pace.