DeAngelo Williams Foot Injury Highlights Thin Steelers Running Back Depth, Changing Times

As everyone knows, Ben Roethlisberger‘s name heads the Steelers injury report as Pittsburgh prepares to play the Cleveland Browns this week. That comes as no surprise after his leaving the Steelers victory over Oakland in the 4th quarter.

The next two names are linebackers James Harrison and Ryan Shazier. Clearly the Steelers are better with those two in the lineup than without, but both have a couple of three players who can take their place.

Last week the Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell to an MCL tear and this week DeAngelo Williams misses practice due to a swollen foot….? Neal Coolong of The Steelers Wire pointed out the Steelers 2015 playoff hopes might hinge on Landry Jones’ arm.

Because those are the “next men up” should DeAngelo Williams be unable to play vs. Cleveland, or at any other point in the remainder of 2015. For the record, Todman has 3 careear starts, 113 carries and 464 yards on his NFL rushing resume. He even has 3 touchdowns and has 3 receptions (although not 3 touchdowns for 3 receptions.) Pead has 19 carries for 78 yards.

Certain segments of Steelers Nation will no doubt wish to pick up the pitch fork and man the barricades to condemn Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert for allowing such a situation to come to pass. But the truth is that DeAngelo William’s swollen foot merely highlights the precarious nature of the Steelers thin running back depth, which simply a symptom of a larger, league wide problem.

Steelers Running Back Depth Long a Franchise Hallmark

Throughout Steelers history, the franchise has long boasted depth charts that were at least three deep at running back.

In 1976, the Steelers had two 1,000 yard rushers in the form of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Six years later the Steelers had three 1st round running backs on their depth chart as they did in 1982 with Harris, Greg Hawthorne and Walter Abercrombie along with work horse Frank Pollard.

The trend of the Steelers fielding a deep bullpen of running back depth continued through 80’s and into the 1990’s. In 1991 the Steelers running back depth chart had Merril Hoge, Barry Foster, Tim Worley, Warren Williams and Leroy Thompson. In 2000, the Steelers running back depth chart boasted Jerome Bettis, Richard Huntley, Amos Zereoue, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala, and Jon Witman with Dan Krieder on the practice squad.

As recently as 2008, the Steelers opened the season with Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Cary Davis, and Gary Russell for depth at running back. Even in 2012, the Steelers still had Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer – hardly three super stars, but the threesome gave Pittsburgh more running back depth than they currently enjoy.

Those days ended then and there, however.

2013 a Turning Point for Running Back Depth for the NFL and the Steelers

The Steelers picked Le’Veon Bell in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Assuming the Bell makes a full recovery from his injury and resumes his stratospheric performances fans will someday wonder how a back of his talent fell out of the NFL Draft’s first round. Or they won’t.

  • The 2013 NFL Draft marked the first draft since 1936 that no running back was taken in the first round.

The trend continued in 2014 and, while the San Diego Chargers took Melvin Gordon in the 1st round of the 2015, NFL Draft, 2013 marks milestone for running back depth for both the Steelers and for the NFL.

2013 saw Bell’s early season sacrificed to a Lis-franc injury, and Redman ailing due to an undisclosed neck injury, so it fell to Dwyer and Felix Jones to carry the Steelers load at running back. The duo did not do well. By comparison’s sake, in Isaac Redman 2012 out-rushed and out received the combined ’13 rushing and receiving totals of Dwyer and Jones.

Choices Lead to Thin Steelers Running Back Depth in 2015

The Steelers thin depth at running back in 2013 was largely a product of accident, but in 2014 it became more a product of choice.

The Steelers of course signed LeGarrette Blount in the off season to back up Bell. But behind Blount the Steelers only had Dri Archer, whom they envisioned as a utility back/wide receiver, and fullback Will Johnson. (Josh Harris was on the practice squad.) LeGarrett Blount discipline problems cost him his roster spot, forcing the Steelers to sign Ben Tate after Bell went down vs. the Bengals.

  • The Blount dismissal aside, the Steelers made a conscious choice to enter 2014 only two players deep at running back.

And the made the same choice in 2015, opting to go with Bell and Williams, only picking up Todman on waivers after Josh Harris failed to impress during preseason. The NFL is a passing league, and no one argues with the Steelers giving Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates roster spots.

  • But every roster choice involves an opportunity cost.

And with Bell down for the count, and DeAngelo Williams nursing a swollen foot, the potential opportunity cost of the Steelers opting to staff such a thin depth chart at running back has just gone up.

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2 thoughts on “DeAngelo Williams Foot Injury Highlights Thin Steelers Running Back Depth, Changing Times

  1. Great article. I think your key phrase had to do with the opportunity cost in making roster decisions. It’s easy to see why the Steelers chose the path they did. It seems to me that in the “good old days” like say, the 1970s, the run game was the basis of what they were doing offensively. These days, for most teams, it’s the passing game. But I think there’s another facet to this.

    Even in the few years I’ve been watching football I’ve noticed commentators are much more inclined to talk about the quickness or vision or whatever of the back in the past few years, and much less about the blocking which created the hole (“my grandmother could have had a touchdown behind that line” etc.) So I don’t know whether backs have gotten more sophisticated, lines have gotten worse at blocking, or maybe because of fantasy or whatever the pundits are much more focused on individual accomplishments.

    As to what that has to do with the subject, I wonder if the idea that anybody can gain a reasonable number of yards if the blocking is sufficient has morphed into the idea that you’re better off with fewer, better backs and then can spend your resources, whether they be roster spots, cap room, or whatever on other stuff. You have to then live or die by whether your fewer, better backs can stay on the field all season.

    • Thanks for commenting Rebecca and great observation on how the running game is portrayed. I’m not sure if there is an actual shift in how the game evolves, but I do know that some commentators have said that the new practice restrictions to make it harder to build offensive line cohesiveness, and any number of stats show that offensive line injuries are up.

      That thing that struck me about this, was that the Steelers found themselves in this boat in 2013, the same year that the running back dropped out of the first round of the NFL draft since 1936.

      As I stated, the fact is that the Steelers fell into this hole by accident (sort of) given that on paper they had Redman, Dwyer, and LaRod Stephens-Howling heading into camp (although they did cut Dwyer.) But on paper they were at least three deep heading into the season, gambling that they could get by with two until Bell could play.

      And in 2014 one could think that at least on paper, they figured that Dri Archer would be a factor.

      This year, that’s not the case as they had to know or at least suspect that Archer wasn’t the answer.

      Given the Steelers roster make up, salary cap, and overall needs, while its nice to say/think “Gee, they should have drafted a running back to serve as a reserve,” the fact is that they need Coates, Bryant, and Hewyard-Bye. One could quibble about keeping both Will Johnson and Roosevelt Nix, but both men have played well.

      Still, this is a sign of the changing times, if nothing else.

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