Replacements eager to fill in for depleted Steelers
The All-Pro running back is suspended until after the fall equinox. The burgeoning - and also suspended - star wide receiver can't clock back in until the first week of October. The all-everything center won't come off injured reserve until November at the earliest.
The Xs represented by Le'Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant and Maurkice Pouncey in Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley's playbook have been transformed into question marks.
Does DeAngelo Williams have something left at 32 to fill in capably for Bell? Will Darrius Heyward-Bey's enigmatic career gain traction while he takes Bryant's spot on the outside? Can Cody Wallace or Doug Legursky do all the little things - and some of the big ones - that make Pouncey such a vital part of one of the NFL's most potent attacks?
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No pressure or anything. All they have to do is fill in for the three most important players on the team not named Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown, while facing the league's most daunting schedule starting on Thursday night against the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady.
Not that Williams is concerned. The all-time leading rusher in Carolina Panthers history and avowed pro wrestling fan sounded like a he was cutting a promo while addressing any concerns about his ability to step in for the versatile (and nearly a decade younger) Bell, who won't play until Week 3 after being disciplined by the league office following his arrest last summer on DUI and drug charges.
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"Y'all just sit back and have a seat and relax and just enjoy the show," Williams said.
It should make for compelling viewing either way. Bell was second in the NFL in all-purpose yards in 2014 while catching 83 passes and scoring 11 touchdowns - the same number Williams has in the last three seasons combined.
Haley stressed it's not fair to replace Bell with one player. Still, he hasn't exactly limited Williams, who lined up in the slot during the preseason, a decided departure from his more traditional role with the Panthers. Roethlisberger acknowledged it's unlikely Williams would be his first option in those situations but that doesn't mean he won't find Roethlisberger looking his way at some point when Pittsburgh goes to an empty backfield.
"I'm aware that if the ball is thrown in my direction I'm expected to catch it because the media is going to be on my back," Williams said. "I understand the role that I'm put in right now."
And Heyward-Bey understands his job is to do enough to keep teams from placing too much attention on Brown, though he admitted it will be difficult to duplicate the production of Bryant, who scored eight times in 10 games as a rookie. Bryant's forward momentum after adding 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason took a hit late in training camp when he was suspended for four games after violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
Enter Heyward-Bey, a former first-round pick by Oakland who never quite lived up to expectations with the Raiders before eventually ending up in Pittsburgh last fall. He only caught three passes in 2014 but found a role as a special teams ace. The player who once ran a 4.3-second 40-yard dash shook his head when asked if he was Bryant before Bryant, insisting he's not the physical marvel his 6-foot-4 teammate is.
"I'm just a football player," Heyward-Bey said. "That's what coach (Mike) Tomlin calls me and I figure that's a compliment because I'll do whatever they need."
What Pittsburgh needs from Cody Wallace or Doug Legursky over the next two months is professionalism if not exactly perfection. While both are plenty familiar with Pittsburgh's offense - Legursky started in place of Pouncey in the 2011 Super Bowl - they understand they can't do the things Pouncey can. Haley knows better than to ask them to try.
"We've got guys who are working hard and looking for opportunities," Haley said. "I think it's really about everybody doing their jobs really well. If we do that, we should have a chance to win."