The Pittsburgh Steelers kick off the regular season tonight against the defending champion New England Patriots, and they will be doing so without their All-Pro running back, Le’Veon Bell, who is serving a two-game suspension.
How his replacements perform could have a tremendous impact on how this game goes. The Steelers signed DeAngelo Williams in the offseason for this purpose, but this will be the most extensive work that he has seen in some time.
The offense will want to try to control the clock as much as possible to keep the Patriots’ offense off the field and minimize their number of scoring opportunities. That generally means keeping the ball on the ground to limit the chances of the clock stopping on an incomplete pass when possible.
Williams has not had double-digit carries since Week 11 of last season. He last had 15 or more carries in Week 15 of the 2013 season, with the last time having 20 going back to Week Three of that same year.
Williams showed himself to possess every facet of the position needed for him to perform, but the fact that he has only gotten limited work does raise the question of how much of a workload he can handle, and the options behind him are limited.
The Steelers signed Jordan Todman after failing to make the Panthers’ roster, and as we have shown this week, he also possesses a complete skill set that extends to special teams, but there are reports that he will not serve as the number two back, given that he has only had a few days to digest his new system.
Dri Archer is limited in what he is able to do as a traditional running back, and would at best command just a few carries. Could the Steelers really decide to turn to Will Johnson to spell Williams as a traditional running back?
This is something that I wrote about early this week after Josh Harris failed to make the roster, but after the acquisition of Todman, it did not seem to be necessary. As long as they give him a limited playbook while he is in the game, he should be able to handle it fine.
Of course, there exists the strong possibility that Williams has no trouble shouldering the load for the vast majority of the game. And if things begin turning into a shootout, which is also highly likely, then the Steelers will be putting the ball in the air quite a bit.
Should that be the case, all of the running backs in question have some degree of receiving ability. Williams has 178 receptions over the course of his career, and Todman has shown that capacity as well.
The Steelers like to get Johnson involved in the passing game every so often and could be a bigger target if necessary. Archer, of course, is listed as both a running back and a wide receiver on the roster. The team values receiving ability out of its running backs, which will be necessary in order to fill the void left by Bell.