When looking across the NFL landscape, there aren’t a whole lot of running backs ages 30 and older who scream productivity. Frank Gore looks to be the lone exception, as he ran for 1,106 yards last year for the San Francisco 49ers. Now 32 years of age, the Indianapolis Colts are looking to Gore to revitalize a stagnant ground game as they’re in “win-now” mode, aimed clearly at the Super Bowl or bust.
Pittsburgh clearly learned from their mistake of signing bad boy running back, LeGarrette Blount, last offseason when they went out and signed classic good-guy, DeAngelo Williams, to play second fiddle to star Le’Veon Bell, who will miss up to the first three games of next season, pending the outcome of his appeal. Williams, who is also 32, is coming off his worst season as a pro, in which he was only healthy for 6 games, as ankle and hand injuries derailed him.
However, in this case, age could be looked at as just a figure, as we compare the two runners and their career statistics. Gore has logged 2,442 career rushing attempts, not including the playoffs, to Williams’ 1,432 career rush attempts. That’s almost 1,000 less carries of slamming the ball between the tackles into 300-pound defenders and far less tread on the tires. It’s also worth noting that Gore has sustained multiple anterior cruciate ligament injuries over the course of his career as well.
Williams will be the starter, by default, in Bell’s absence and will be expected to shoulder the load in those contests, and when Bell returns, he’ll be expected to provide the occasional breather for the Steelers’ workhorse. We will take a look at those first three contests and the run defenses that Williams will have to navigate if Pittsburgh wants to stay afloat in the rough-and-tumble AFC North.
Week 1 at New England – In this contest, minus Tom Brady presumably, the Steelers might ultimately wind up being favored, facing off against a second-year QB making his first NFL start in Jimmy Garoppolo. On defense, the Patriots have some undeniable talent at the inside linebacker spot, with Dont’a Hightower and the athletic Jamie Collins. They even have the former Pro Bowler, Jerod Mayo, returning from injury. What they’ll be missing though is the bedrock of their defensive line for the better part of the last decade or so, Vince Wilfork. The team ranked ninth against the run last season, only giving up six touchdowns and 104.3 yards per game. However, it’ll be on younger players such as their first round pick, the 6-foot-2, 319-pound Malcom Brown of Texas and Dominique Easley, their 2014 first rounder. If Pittsburgh can create a lead via their explosive offense and create some turnovers on D, the ground game will look to be featured. If Williams closes in on around 20 carries, I’d say he tips over the century mark in a Steelers’ win.
Week 2 hosting San Francisco – The 49ers actually ranked higher in the run defense rankings than the Patriots, coming in seventh in 2014. But let’s dig deeper, and we see a complete facelift on the defensive side of the ball. Gone are the heart and soul of the defense, Patrick Willis and Justin Smith, and so are Ray McDonald and Chris Borland. In their place steps in Navorro Bowman, who’s returning from a serious knee injury. Their first round pick, Arik Armstead, looks the part but he’s not going to step in from day one and reap the type of production that Smith created. I believe in this one, two young defenses are the similarity but the major difference is the offensive firepower that Pittsburgh has, which SF simply doesn’t. If Williams can keep the defense honest, by gaining maybe 75-80 yards on the ground, that should make the defense susceptible over the top to big plays, and I think Pittsburgh squeaks by for the W.
Week 3 at St. Louis – Depending how Bell’s appeal turns out, he could very well be back in the lineup for this one, and his pass-catching skills may be needed, as running room may be scarce. The Rams have arguably the most talented defensive line in football, littered with first rounders. Their defensive line is basically the pedigree equivalent to that of the Pittsburgh linebacking corps except they’re getting the immediate production, including last year’s AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, Aaron Donald, who gained nine sacks. He’s joined by Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers and even super-sub free agent pickup, Nick Fairley along the defensive front. Running room could be scarce in this one, and with the way their defense can rush the passer, the offensive line could very well have it’s hands full. Depending on who wins the turnover battle will go a long way in deciding the outcome. The one thing about Williams though is he’s an adequate pass blocker, and his skills might be needed in this one to keep Ben Roethlisberger’s jersey clean.
At the end of the day, is Williams on Bell’s level? The answer is no, but he can help Pittsburgh win ball games, especially in the first several weeks of the season. If Pittsburgh can get off to a 3-0 or 2-1 start, I think the Williams signing can be viewed as a big success, as he’s a vast improvement over what we saw in last year’s playoff game loss.