The Replacements

It's all about the Steelers offense on Opening Night, but 50 percent of it has been suspended. Read why there's faith in The Replacements.

The logical thinking on the NFL opener Thursday night is two-fold:

1. The young Pittsburgh Steelers defense will be exploited by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, so the offense has to carry the Steelers.

2. But the Steelers offense is missing reigning team MVP Le'Veon Bell and Rookie of the Year Martavis Bryant, so that will be impossible.

After all, in the last 10 games of last season, Bell and Bryant accounted for 47 percent of the Steelers' offensive touchdowns and 56 percent of their yardage. Bell is the filet mignon of this offense, while Bryant is the cherry on top.

But not now. Not in New England. Not when DeAngelo Williams must replace replace Bell in the backfield and Darrius Heyward-Bey must run deep in place of Bryant.

The stars are suspended. But somehow these replacements are instilling confidence.

"I have a lot of confidence in DeAngelo," said Mike Tomlin. "This is not his first rodeo by any stretch. He has been in the league for a decade. He is a 6,000-yard college rusher. If you listen, he will tell you about it."

At the University of Memphis, where Tomlin once coached, Williams gained 6,026 yards and had more 100-yard games (34) than anyone in NCAA history. He was Carolina's first-round pick in 2006.

So someone -- a reporter wearing another college shirt -- did as Tomlin instructed and asked Williams about it.

"It was different from Michigan State, that's for sure," Williams said to the reporter. "You know, I don't have to go around wearing a Michigan State shirt to let everybody know that that's the team that I pull for, because I wear it on my heart. Not saying that's you.

"Oh, you do have a Michigan State shirt on. Didn't even know that. Didn't even know that. Didn't even know that.

"But, yeah, I mean (Tomlin) went to Memphis and quite a number of coaches went to Memphis. I think the best athletes and the best coaches and the best students are at the University of Memphis. But I could be a little biased. Just a little. Not much."

And with that, Williams unleashed uproarious laughter.

"He's an energy bringer," said Tomlin in using an apt description.

Ask Williams, the 32-year-old with almost 13,000 rushing yards worn from off college and pro tires, whether he still has his "burst," and all can see that energy.

"Do I still have my burst?" he asked in a repeat of a spring-time response. "I don't know you tell me. I'm asking you. I don't get a chance to look at myself. I'm too busy trying to make guys miss and trying to get in the end zone."

Yes, Williams has shown his burst all offseason. As Tomlin said, "He’s had not only a good offseason but a good preseason. I am excited about watching him play."

Williams believes it's due to feeling better physically than he has in several years.

"It is," he said. "See, a lot of people have said this year, 'If I can stay healthy.' Hey, I had a bad year last year in terms of injuries but that was my only year. But, because I split carries with Jonathan (Stewart) they get me and him mixed up. So they say if he's injured one year and I'm injured this year, they just put all those injuries on whatever guy's injured the last. So I come in and it's like, 'Ah, he's injury prone. He's injury prone.' It was just one year. GEEZ!"

And it's not just the burst from apparently young legs that Williams has shown. Williams has also shown good hands, good routes and he picks up blitzes for his quarterback.

Williams may have been a risk for the Steelers, at 32, but he's showing all the makings of becoming a top-flight free-agent acquisition this season.

"I like a lot about him," said Ben Roethlisberger. "He is a proven veteran who has been in the league for a long time. He runs hard. He is smart. He knows the system already. He has already been putting hard work in. He just had a baby so he’s ready to go win a game ball for it."

Roethlisberger likes the other replacement, too. But everybody likes Heyward-Bey. He may not bring all the energy that Williams does while brashly thrashing the Pittsburgh media, but "Hey-Bey" is just a work-a-day soldier who understands his place on the depth chart and still helps those around him, because it adds up to winning.

And he can get deep.

"His speed is undeniable," Roethlisberger said. "They are going to have to watch him. That’s where he honed his craft. I think early on when he went to Oakland, I think that was one of the reasons he was drafted, to run fast and go deep. He does that very well. But what he’s done when he got here is really work on his route running. I think we’ve seen that. If you’ve seen him long enough, you can see he takes pride in running good routes. He has been able to do that from both the inside and outside spots. That’s why I have the confidence in him. He has it in himself."

It appears that with Williams and Heyward-Bey, the Steelers have made the best of a bad situation. But as Tomlin said about replacing players of Bell's and Bryant's magnitude, "It's not usually a one-man job. We have guys with skills capable enough of filling that void. I’m excited about watching them do it."

Tomlin's excited. But excuse Steelers fans for holding their collective breath.


Steel City Insider Top Stories