Pittsburgh Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams has had his detractors over the course of his career, and this past offseason in particular, to be sure. Some of them were even real, though many of them imagined, or at least exaggerated. And he has been better for it.
One message from a detractor that was very real was handed down to him early in the offseason from the Carolina Panthers front office, informing him of his release. No doubt there was a great deal contained in that letter, but it’s a two-word phrase that continues to stick out to him, as he told NFL.com’s Aditi Kinkhabwala:
Evidently featured prominently either in his home or in his locker, Kinkhabwala writes that he walks past that letter every day, reminding him of his “diminished skills”. Williams told her that it was the “best thing they could write me”, because it only serves to motivate him even furthers, especially after his injury-riddled final season in Carolina.
He has certainly been performing like a motivated man at the age of 32 from a running back position where so many years is well-regarded as past his prime. And yet the veteran has been doing things he hasn’t done in years—some things he’s never done.
Williams was brought in in large part due to the fact that Le’Veon Bell was scheduled to serve a suspension to start the year. The former first-round pick would start in his place to begin the season and then transition into a support role.
But will Bell out for the season, it’s now Williams’ job, and nobody else’s, hardly missing a snap in the games in which he has started. Bell went down with a torn MCL a few games ago, and Williams has been back in the starting lineup, performing above his pay grade.
In the four games that he has started in 2015, he has rushed for 428 yards on 85 carries, including games of 127 yards and 170 yards, averaging 107 yards per game, and five yards per carry, in that span. He has five rushing touchdowns and two multi-touchdown games in the games he has started.
That 170-yard rushing performance was the most since he ran for 210 yards in the 2012 season finale, and the third-most he’s ever had in his career. His 225 total yards in that game was a career-high, and his 29 touches also ranks second behind only a 32-touch game in 2009.
No doubt the words from his former organization are part of why he has excelled this season—he has always used criticism, real or imagined, as fuel—but his willingness to be coaches and advised is also part of that. He had no problem dropping significant weight at Mike Tomlin’s request, knowing that it could only help him perform better this year.
But his teammates don’t see in him a player driven only for personal achievements. As he told Kinkhabwala, 170 yards and 54 yards both “translated into a win” the last two weeks. Cameron Heyward said about him, and his constant talking, “it’s not about him—it’s about us. He’s a competitor. And he’s here at a critical time for us”.
I would like to think that the Steelers are here at a critical time for Williams as well, giving him the opportunity now to silence all of his doubters with his “diminished skills”. Though he has only started four games, his 534 rushing yards ranks 15th in the league at the moment.
Of the backs ahead of him on the list, only Giovani Bernard has less than his 107 carries, and only Bernard and Todd Gurley, among backs with at least 80 carries, have a higher yards per carry than Williams’ 5.0. And who would have thought, he is one of just seven runners this year, at the age of 32, with multiple rushes of 40 yards or more.