It’s deja vu all over again.
For a second straight season, the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for life without their starting running back due to injuries suffered in their regular season finale. In both cases the injuries – last season to Le’Veon Bell and this year to DeAngelo Williams – leave the team searching an adequate replacement as they prepare to face a division rival in the AFC Wild Card playoffs.
We all know how the story unfolded and ultimately ended after the Bell injury; the combination of rookie free agent Josh Harris and Ben Tate, who was playing for his fourth team in a year, left the Steelers without even the threat of a rushing attack in a lopsided home playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
This time it is an injury to Williams that leaves a significant void as the Steelers are set to face the Cincinnati Bengals Saturday night in the AFC Wild Card round. Williams suffered an ankle injury in their win over the Cleveland Browns that has his status for Saturday night in doubt.
Although Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin suggested Williams injury is “day to day” at his weekly press conference earlier this afternoon, it looks quite possible little used backup Fitzgerald Toussaint will be in line to make his first NFL start in a win or go home playoff scenario against the Bengals.
There’s certainly reason for concern if Williams is out and Toussaint is asked to step into a starting role, but don’t count Tomlin as one of those who feels the former University of Michigan product to be over his head.
“He’s a talented and hard-working guy,” Tomlin said. “He displays that for us on a day-to-day basis. Not only when he was called up and active, but when he was serving us in the scout team capacity.”
Considering Toussaint comes from the hard-scrabble community of Youngstown, Oh., it’s probably not hard to understand why Tomlin makes quick note of his work ethic and efforts since joining the Steelers after a brief stint with the Ravens last season.
“He brings a no-nonsense approach, blue-collar approach that I’m sure Steelers nation will appreciate,” Tomlin said. “I’m sure they’ll grow to like him in the manner we do.”
Toussaint brings relatively strong credentials to the table after being three-year starter at Michigan from 2009-13. After 30 career starts and 40 total games played, Toussaint would amass 2,290 yards on 510 carries (4.5 ypc) while scoring 28 rushing TDs. His best season was his Junior year in 2011 when he eclipsed the 1,000-yard plateau (1,041) while helping lead the Wolverines to a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.
Although Toussaint struggled to provide much in the running game against the Browns in a 12-carry, 24-yard performance Sunday, Toussaint proved to be a reliable pass blocker out of the backfield and also contributed with pass reception on a two-point conversion that helped give the Steelers added breathing room in the win.
It’s worth noting that Toussaint did an excellent job in blitz pickup against the Browns, and his efforts contributed to Ben Roethlisberger not being sacked the entire game. Considering the Bengals 42 sacks rank them among the league’s top 10, Toussaint’s ability as a pass blocker could be a key factor in why Tomlin has faith he can handle the starting duties if needed this weekend.
Regardless of Williams’ availability for Saturday, it seems clear the Steelers are set to rely on Toussaint and veteran Jordan Todman to carry the load and won’t sign a veteran last minute after the nightmarish results last year with Tate. Despite the risks, Tomlin seems to resolved to hope Williams can recover, but will rely on a Toussaint/Todman combination if needed.
“It’s appropriate to build our plan around Fitz and Todman,” Tomlin said. “We’ll challenge those guys to have a big week and deliver for us the way others have when injuries struck.”