Through two games, the Pittsburgh Steelers, which have been without Le’Veon Bell, Ladarius Green and Markus Wheaton on offense, are 2-0 and look to be a powerhouse in the AFC.
Pittsburgh’s simplified defense has been noticeably better than most expected, but while offensive superstars Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown lit up the Redskins in Week 1, both had quite a hard time in Pittsburgh in the rain against Cincinnati.
The constant for Pittsburgh’s offense over two weeks has been DeAngelo Williams.
The 33-year-old Williams was a first-round pick by the Panthers back in 2006 and put together an excellent career in Carolina. In 2008, he rushed for over 1,500 yards, caught 22 passes and scored an amazing 20 touchdowns.
In a very surprising move at the time, the Panthers used the 13th pick overall in the 2008 draft to select Jonathan Stewart and it wasn’t long before the two highly talented running backs were splitting carries. Williams never made a fuss and was a mentor to Stewart and that lack of wear and tear sure looks to be paying off huge for Williams and his new team.
While it surely robbed him of some monster individual seasons, the drafting of Stewart probably extended Williams’ impressive career.
After the 2014 campaign, Pittsburgh brought Williams in to act as Bell’s backup as well as to provide some leadership and mentoring to their young star back. Williams replaced LeGarrette Blount, who needless to say, didn’t exactly provide the positive influence that Williams has brought to the table.
Williams is outspoken in his fight against breast cancer and is a true professional on the field and with his preparation. Running backs rarely last 11 years in the NFL without such an approach. Williams is still performing at an extremely high level as a player.
When Bell was out of the lineup last year with either his two-game suspension to begin the season or due to injury, Williams was outstanding and has been a highly consistent producer.
Through two games in 2016, he has already carried the ball 58 times and has rushed for 237 yards against a poor Redskins defense and a stout Cincinnati run defense.
The Steelers are riding their veteran running back.
In fact, Williams has just under 88 percent of Pittsburgh’s carries, which is by far the highest number in the league. Matt Forte has just under 79 percent, which is second in the league.
Since Mike Tomlin has taken over as Pittsburgh’s head coach, the Steelers have ridden running backs (often into the ground) at least as much as any franchise in the NFL. Well, Bell is to return from his suspension in Week 4, so Williams has at least one more game (in Philadelphia) with a huge workload in store for him.
But then he might find himself on the shelf.
What is it that Williams is doing so well right now? In Washington, the holes were big and Williams exploited them in a big way en route to running for 143 yards. He was a dominant player on a dominant offense against an overmatched Redskins’ run defense.
But against the Bengals, Williams just kept coming. The conditions were sloppy and as noted, the competition was greater. He didn’t break long runs and was often bottled up before he got started.
However, if you go back and watch some of Williams’ runs that went for only four to six yards (give or take), you will see some spectacular running by a running back that still has some of those gifts that made him a first-round pick, but also the mind of a wily veteran.
He remains powerful, quick, highly elusive with excellent lateral agility and shows fantastic vision. Like Bell — and maybe he actually learned this one from Bell — Williams also is showing rare patience to let his blocks develop. No one in the league quite does that like Bell, but Williams has actually improved in this area since joining the Steelers.
Also, with how dedicated Pittsburgh was to pounding it with Williams, it opened up some deep shots to Sammie Coates, which paid off huge.
Of course, playing with his current supporting cast hasn’t hurt his cause either. We all know that Roethlisberger and Brown are amongst the best in the league at what they do. In fact, they are probably the NFL’s best quarterback/wide receiver pair going right now.
They are lethal, and that makes Williams job easier.
The Steelers’ offensive line, under Hall of Famer Mike Munchak’s exceptional tutelage, has also quickly risen up the ranks in comparison to the other 31 lines in the league.
The combination of David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey is as good of a guard/center combination as you will find in this league. Marcus Gilbert is right at the top of the best right tackle list in football. Ramon Foster is an above average starting guard and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva is a great story and project who has developed into an average starting left tackle, which is quite an accomplishment. Munchak, a former head coach, is one of the league’s best offensive line coaches.
The Steelers run scheme is also really humming right now. Pittsburgh has a diverse rushing attack without question. The Steelers love to pull their guards, especially DeCastro.
They use a lot of counter action, love to run outside zone and overall there are a lot of big men acting as movable parts. These tactics can take time to develop, which makes the runner’s patience so important, but it also can be devastating when executed properly…which is exactly what we have seen of late from the Steelers.
Wheaton should return this week. Green’s return is a little less certain, but he could be back in Week 7. Bell is definitely going to be back in Week 4. With all due respect to Williams and his outstanding contributions, he is going to find himself on the bench behind Bell.
And as impressive as Williams has been, Bell is just flat-out better. In fact, he’s the best running back in the game today and a rare receiver for the position as well. Knowing Tomlin’s history, that probably means that Williams may only see a handful of carries while Bell is carrying the load.
As great as Bell is, we all know about his injury and suspension history. What a feeling it must be for Tomlin to know that he can turn to Williams if his star back were to again become unavailable.
Who knows, maybe Williams will be grinding out 25 or 30 carries for Pittsburgh in Super Bowl LI.