Overcoming adversity in 2015

Posted Jan 31, 2016

The Steelers averaged 107.8 rushing yards per game.

In a season that began and ended without running back Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers’ running game rarely stopped answering the bell.

The Steelers’ No. 16 ranking in rushing yards per game (107.8 yards) doesn’t begin to tell the tale of what the ground game accomplished in 2015. That’s a story that can’t be truly appreciated unless all of the extenuating circumstances are factored into the equation and the evaluation.

Circumstances such as:

-Not having Bell, an All-Pro in 2014, for the first two games due to a suspension and not after the Steelers’ Nov. 1 hosting of Cincinnati due to injury.

-Not having All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey all season due to a preseason injury suffered on Aug. 23 against Green Bay.

-Losing left tackle Kelvin Beachum for the season due to an injury suffered on Oct. 18 against Arizona.

-Losing running back DeAngelo Williams for the postseason, as it turned out, due to an injury suffered in the regular-season finale at Cleveland.

Through it all the Steelers managed to run the ball well enough to finish in a three-way tie for sixth in the league in rushing touchdowns in the regular season with 16.

They also managed to carry the ball across the goal line (running back Fitz Toussaint from 1 yard out) in their 23-16 postseason loss on Jan. 17 at Denver.

Williams, signed as an unrestricted free agent from Carolina in 2015 to complement Bell, did much of the heavy lifting.

His 200-carry, 907-yard season featured 11 rushing TDs, including a team record-tying three on Sept. 20 against San Francisco.

Williams’ production on the ground, coupled with the 556 yards Bell managed between his suspension and his knee injury, allowed the Steelers to generate 1,463 rushing yards from their starting running back. That’s a total that trailed only Barry Foster’s franchise-record 1,690 yards in 1992, Jerome Bettis’ 1,665 in 1997 and Willie Parker’s 1,494 in 2006 in Steelers’ history.

Williams, like Bell before him, was also able to contribute in the passing game, a prerequisite for a Steelers’ running back in terms of doing all that’s expected.

Williams’ career-high 225 yards from scrimmage on Nov. 8 against the Raiders included 55 receiving yards. And his 88 receiving yards on seven catches on Nov. 29 at Seattle contributed to another 117 yards from scrimmage.

Williams ended up as the only player in the AFC and one of four in the NFL to produce at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage (1,274) and at least 10 rushing TDs (11).

The Steelers’ 4.4 average per carry in the 2015 regular season surpassed the figure they had posted in the previous season (4.1).

And the average jumped to 5.3 yards per attempt in the postseason even with Bell and Williams unavailable. Wide receiver Martavis Bryant helped out with three carries for 84 yards (28.0 per), including a 44-yard burst on an end-around at Denver. Toussaint (29-97-3.3-one TD) and running back Jordan Todman (16-71-4.4) also managed to contribute to keeping the ground game productive enough to remain a viable option.