The Steelers are in these playoffs as a Wild Card largely as a result of some of the guys on the lower rungs of their roster being able to compensate for the loss of some of the guys on the higher rungs of their roster at various points during the regular season.
To boil it down to a slogan, you could choose from either "next man up," or "the standard is the standard." And today it looks as though a continued adherence to either slogan will be a contributing factor in whether the Steelers are to remain in the playoffs beyond Saturday night.
Saturday night is when their postseason will open with a rubber match against AFC North Division rival Cincinnati, and as Coach Mike Tomlin was going through the paces of his weekly news conference at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, the impression was that the Steelers were going to have to face the challenge without running back Le'Veon Bell.
Williams was the starter during two separate portions of the regular season – first, for the two games when Bell was serving a suspension, and then for the season's final eight games after Bell was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury. For the season, Williams finished with 1,274 yards from scrimmage that came from 907 rushing (4.5 average) and 367 more on 40 receptions. He scored 11 touchdowns, all rushing.
But during the season finale in Cleveland, Williams was injured in the first half and did not finish the game. Initially thought to be an ankle injury, Tomlin said today, "I think technically, it's not even an ankle (injury). It's a foot (injury)."
Either way, Williams is being characterized as day-to-day.
"DeAngelo's injury situation is one that is noteworthy," said Tomlin. "He's being evaluated and getting treatment as we speak. I just spoke with him, and he can be characterized as day-to-day. I don't know what his availability will be in terms of the game. Like we do in all instances, we'll let practice availability and participation be our guide in terms of what to expect of him. We'll give him an opportunity to do that if he's capable, and then we'll have daily discussions and planning regarding that."
The Steelers found themselves in a similar situation one year ago, when they entered a Wild Card Round game – that time against the Ravens – with Bell having been injured in that regular season finale. With LeGarrette Blount having been released weeks earlier after quitting on the team during a Monday night win in Tennessee, the Steelers were left with Josh Harris, plus veteran Ben Tate, who was signed off the street just days before, for that 2014 Wild Card Round game.
While this situation could end up being similar in that the Steelers may be dipping down to the No. 3 running back on their depth chart, Tomlin said the situation this time around is much more advantageous for the team because of the people involved. He got a preview of how it might turn out in the second half of that win over the Browns in Cleveland.
"As we were starting to gain some traction (in Cleveland), we lost DeAngelo, and we've lost some guys along the way over the course of the season, and it usually requires some adjustments from an offensive personality standpoint," said Tomlin. "I thought our guys did a solid job of rediscovering themselves and how we were going to attack and do what was necessary to win in that environment with what was at our disposal.
"I really appreciate the efforts of Fitzgerald Toussaint. I thought he did a really rock-solid job. I'm not surprised by that. He's a diligent worker. He brings a business-like approach. He's one of those guys everybody is excited about seeing play, excited about seeing given an opportunity. That's because here's a guy who doesn't say much, is really low maintenance, really works hard to put himself in position to be a positive contributor for us. He was given that opportunity (last) Sunday, and he delivered."
Toussaint was signed to the practice squad on Sept. 7 after being released by the Ravens a couple of days before. In a reaction to Bell's injury on Nov. 1, the Steelers signed veteran Isaiah Pead to the 53-man roster, but about three weeks later the decision was made to release Pead and promote Toussaint from the practice squad. Subsequently Toussaint jumped over Jordan Todman on the depth chart and carried 18 times for 42 yards, including a team high 12 for 24 yards last Sunday in Cleveland. Todman finished the regular season with four carries for 22 yards and was inactive for the final five games of the regular season.
"He's a talented and hard-working guy," said Tomlin about Toussaint. "He displays that for us on a day-to-day basis, not only since he's been called up and active, but when he was serving us in a scout team capacity when he was on the practice squad. He brings a no-nonsense, blue-collar approach that I'm sure Steelers Nation would appreciate, and I'm sure they're going to grow to like him in the manner we do."
One of the issues that arose in last year's playoff game with the absence of Bell was the inability of both Harris and Tate to be assets in the passing attack. And that doesn't mean as receivers, either.
"Toussaint is very capable in the passing game, and I think his play on Sunday displayed that," said Tomlin. "We threw the ball quite a bit, Ben wasn't sacked in the game, and (Toussaint's) efforts had a lot to do with that."
As was the case earlier in the season with other players – including Roethlisberger on two separate occasions as a result of two different injuries – the Steelers will hold out some hope the starter can play in the game while preparing someone else in the event he cannot.
"It's prudent for us to build our plan around Fitz and Todman, guys who have been here, guys who are healthy, guys who are willing and capable to be positive contributors to our efforts," said Tomlin. "We're going to challenge those guys to have a big week to be wired in from a preparation standpoint, and to deliver in a similar way that others have delivered for us over the course of the year when adversity or injury strikes.
"We asked DeAngelo to do the same thing. DeAngelo usually gets offended by that; he says it's not his first rodeo. He had an opportunity to step up because of injury to Le'Veon Bell. We never asked him to be Le'Veon, we just asked him to be DeAngelo, and that was more than enough. If a similar thing happens at that position this week, we'll ask similar things of Fitz and Todman. We won't ask them to be Le'Veon. We won't ask them to be DeAngelo. We'll ask them to be themselves, to be positive contributors to our efforts, and to play good, winning football. I think that's a fair thing to ask, and I think both men are capable of delivering that."