As a national audience witnessed Monday night, rumors of the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers’ demise were greatly exaggerated.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger shined, and Antonio Brown further staked his claim as the best wide receiver in the NFL with a pair of touchdown catches in the Steelers’ 38-16 season-opening win against the Washington Redskins.
But tailback DeAngelo Williams was the catalyst for the offense.
The 33-year-old steamrolled his way to a league-best 143 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 28 carries against the Redskins, who by the fourth quarter looked like they didn’t even want to try tackling him anymore.
Even with All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell serving a three-game suspension for missing a drug test and ultra-dangerous wide receiver Martavis Bryant serving a season-long suspension for again violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, the Steelers moved the ball at will against the reigning NFC East champions.
In an ever-changing league that saw only two players rush for over 100 yards in week one, the Steelers have two proven backs capable of blowing past that number no matter which one is playing.
When Bell and Bryant were issued their suspensions, pundits openly questioned whether the Steelers’ offense could withstand the losses. Anyone who watched the team play last year, though, knew there was no reason to panic.
In case anyone forgot, the Steelers played the first two games of last season without Bell and played the first four without Bryant. Bell served a two-game suspension related to his 2014 arrest on DUI and marijuana possession charges, and Bryant was issued a four-game suspension for a failed drug test.
Things turned out just fine, as the Steelers finished 10-6 as the fourth-highest scoring offense in the NFL, even without the missing pieces.
To offset the losses, the Steelers added Williams in free agency before the start of last season. Not many teams wanted to take a chance on the then-32-year-old running back, which is usually the position in the NFL with the shortest career expectancy. No other players take more hits or absorb more punishment.
But the Steelers took a gamble and signed Williams to a two year, $4 million contract –– which in hindsight looks like a huge bargain, even for a backup.
The veteran back had spent the first nine years of his career with the Carolina Panthers, racking up 6,846 yards and 46 touchdowns on an impressive 4.8 yards per carry. Most teams probably assumed his best days were behind him, but he has never played better than he has in Pittsburgh.
Williams stepped in brilliantly in Bell’s absence in 2015, and the Steelers’ offense didn’t miss a beat. Together they put up 43 points in a win over the San Francisco 49ers in week two without the services of Bell or Bryant, as Williams accounted for 92 total yards and three touchdowns.
Williams finished the season with 907 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns in place of Bell, who played in only six games after returning from suspension and suffering a torn ACL in week nine.
By the close of the regular season, the Steelers were in position to defeat the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos and advance to the AFC Championship Game until third-string running back Fitzgerald Toussaint’s fumble gave the Broncos a chance to drive down for a game-winning score.
When Williams went down with a leg injury in week 17 last year, the Steelers’ title hopes took a serious hit. But without both Bell and Williams, they were still able to go on the road and knock off the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round before pushing the Broncos to the brink in the Divisional Round.
If both Williams and Bell can stay healthy this year, the team will have an abundance of riches at running back. If they only have one or the other, they will still possess the scariest offense in the entire league.
Now, if Bryant can get his act together and come back from his suspension to rejoin the team next year, it might be time to start rewriting the record books.