By far, the biggest development to come out of the Week 2 curb-stomping of the 49ers was the second straight strong performance by running back DeAngelo Williams. The impact of having a proven commodity to plug into the lineup in Le’Veon Bell’s absence in the season’s first two weeks cannot be overstated.
Williams smashed, slipped and scraped his way to 204 yards and three touchdowns in two games as Bell’s replacement. With Bell returning from his suspension to face the Rams this week, Williams now settles into his role as Bell’s backup – not to mention the best damn insurance policy the Steelers could have hoped for.
When Reggie Nelson’s helmet connected with Bell’s knee in the 2014 season finale, the Steelers were left with Ben Tate, Josh Harris and Dri Archer – a journeyman and two rookies – to run the ball against the Ravens in the playoffs. Should Bell get injured again this season, Williams – a veteran presence who has shown he can move the chains consistently in the NFL for nearly a decade – will be waiting in the wings.
The Steelers are prepping for their second straight test against an NFC West opponent this week – this one in St. Louis against the 1-1 Rams. Whether Todd Haley’s offense continues to go for two after early touchdowns again this week remains to be seen, but watching the Steelers put up eight points instead of seven twice early on was an entertaining development. The strategy seems like it will work better at home – where momentum and the Heinz Field faithful will be on the team’s side after every score.
There’s no doubt the Steelers have the personnel to keep opposing defenses guessing, but going for two at home with 66,000 card-carrying members of Steeler Nation behind you is far different than the reception they’ll get later in the year in Baltimore or Cincinnati. The home crowd is obedient. It will back off the noise when Ben’s downward-waving arms ask for it. Cleveland’s Dawg Pound won’t be so accommodating, which could throw off the razor-sharp execution we saw in the first half last Sunday.
The biggest challenge facing the Steelers this week is the stout defensive front of the Rams. St. Louis has eight sacks through its first two games, seven of which have come from defensive linemen. The task of keeping the likes of Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn from disrupting the timing of the offense falls on the offensive line, which has held up pretty well through the season’s first two games. The Patriots and 49ers got to Ben a total of just three times in the first two weeks of the year. The timing of the passing game has been impeccable, and the running game has had plenty of room to operate.
On the other side of the ball, the pressure generated by the front seven has been impressive. Linebacker Ryan Shazier had the game of his life against San Francisco last week, but a shoulder injury has his status for this Sunday in doubt. The secondary still has a lot of room for improvement, but Colin Kaepernick’s inaccuracy and a couple of key drops made the defensive backfield’s afternoon look a lot better than it actually was.
The Steelers have given up six touchdowns – all through the air – in the first two weeks of 2015. St. Louis quarterback Nick Foles is known for his passing prowess, but his lack of mobility and the Rams dearth of big-play receivers should play into the Steelers favor this weekend.