Don’t let the above title let you jump to false conclusions or misguided interpretations of the argument I’m about to make for the importance of running back DeAngelo Williams. The success of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2015 NFL season will begin and end as it has for the past several years, with the play of Ben Roethlisberger. Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and a young defense will all play a large role, but the importance of Williams should not be lost amongst all the exciting young talent Pittsburgh has to offer this season.
After all, it might be Williams who has a chance to play a large part in making or breaking the Steelers 2015 season.
When Bell went down with a knee injury in Week 17 against the Cincinnati Bengals, the running game duties landed squarely in the hands of undrafted free agent Josh Harris and just-signed power back Ben Tate. Things didn’t exactly go swimmingly for the Steelers offense when Bell was unavailable for their playoff matchup against the Baltimore Ravens the following week, as the duo combined for just 44 yards on 15 carries en route to Pittsburgh’s 30-17 loss to their hated rival.
Of course, the Steelers running back depth had become an issue earlier in the season, when the ineffective LeGarrette Blount left the field before the conclusion of Pittsburgh’s win over the Tennessee Titans in Week 11. Hours later the Steelers released the disgruntled back, ridding themselves of a locker room cancer, but depleting their depth behind Bell to Harris and equally-ineffective rookie Dri Archer.
Taking all these issues and their devastating ripple effect on the team’s offense, the Steelers brass knew they needed to find suitable depth behind Bell heading into the 2015 season. Enter Williams, the 32 year-old, ex-Carolina Panthers running back, who is the young franchise’s all-time leading rusher, but struggled with injuries last season and appeared in only six games.
What he’s accomplished over the course of his career is impressive however, as Williams has averaged over 4.1 yards per carry in each of his nine seasons in the NFL. The Memphis product has shown consistency in an oft-featured role in Carolina, but has only rushed for 1,000 yards twice, mostly due to limited carry numbers.
Nevertheless, it is that consistency that will be greatly needed in Pittsburgh with Bell currently suspended for the first three games of the season due to being charged last offseason for marijuana possession and a DUI. With the Steelers all-purpose back slated to miss the start of the season (albeit with appeal pending), the team will turn to Williams to guide their running game.
The veteran back is fully confident and has been outspoken about his ability to fill Bell’s shoes when the season starts, words he can hopefully deliver on when the Steelers season begins on September 10th against the New England Patriots. Along with the defending world champs, the Steelers will take on two other tough run defenses in the San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams in Weeks 2 and 3. The schedule doesn’t get much softer after that, so getting off to a strong start will be crucial for Pittsburgh’s season.
Not only that, but there are opportunities to be had in all three games that the Steelers can surely take advantage of even without Bell. New England will begin their title defense without Tom Brady or long-time defensive stalwart Vince Wilfork, while the 49ers have dealt with a host of retirements along their defensive corps. Williams has the talent to take advantage, especially considering the improvement of the Steelers offensive line in front of him. If the former Panther can regain some of the form he had in years prior to 2014, it could be the difference between a losing record and a winning one when Bell returns in Week 4.
Surely the Steelers offense will be game-planning to primarily defeat teams through the air, but Pittsburgh fans are well aware how much the offense is hampered without a potent running game. Unlike Blount, Williams will not only be a solid presence in the locker room for the Steelers, but he also carries the potential to back up his talk on the field.
At some point during those first three weeks, the Steelers will need Williams to come through for them, perhaps more than once. When that time comes, we’ll know whether Kevin Colbert and the front office did enough to right their wrongs from last offseason and properly solve the team’s depth issues in the backfield. Unlike Blount, if Williams is to be the answer behind Bell this season for Pittsburgh, it won’t take us until Week 11 to figure it out.