There is one encouraging element from the Steelers’ AFC Wild Card win over the Cincinnati Bengals Saturday night that did not involve the impulse control problems of Vontaze Burfict or Adam Jones, the health of Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulder or the fuzziness inside Antonio Brown’s head.
It’s an element that helped them throughout the game, long before that chaotic, epic period between when Burfict sacked Roethlisberger — causing him to leave the game with an injured shoulder — and when A.J. McCarron’s final desperation heave fell to the turf at Paul Brown Stadium.
It’s the same element that might give the Steelers a fighting chance next Sunday in Denver against the Broncos. And it’s the same element they lacked last season when they lost a home playoff game to the Baltimore Ravens.
Hold on, let me rephrase. Technically, they are two elements that when combined prove to be pretty explosive: running backs Fitzgerald Touissant and Jordan Todman, a.k.a. “TNT.”
Say what you want about Mike Tomlin’s decision-making throughout this season. Despite having three different quarterbacks drop back to pass, four kickers teeing up, four kick returners fielding balls in the end zone and five different running backs taking carries, at least with the latter of those ongoing changes he learned not to make the same mistake twice.
He could’ve done the same thing he did after Le’Veon Bell went down during the regular season finale last year against those same Bengals. He could’ve went for another free agent re-tread off the street and given him just a week to learn the playbook, memorize the protections and hope for the best like he did with Ben Tate.
But instead he put his faith in two backs who have combined for only 22 carries this season, but have at least been with the team all season. Todman was signed as a free agent to provide depth should this very situation arise. Toussaint was a practice squad player who eventually rose to the active roster and unseated Isaiah Pead.
There are a few reasons why Mike Tomlin’s players love playing for him. He goes out of his way to avoid blasting them publicly (even though sometimes it is the necessary thing to do). He keeps the details of his personal conversations with individual players regarding discipline issues confidential, completely eschewing public criticism from media and fans alike.
And when the time comes for a reserve to step into a starting role, he publicly puts his trust in that newly-made starter and works to build their confidence, whether they need it or not.
This time he put that faith in two men pressed into that position, and it paid off with 32 combined touches for 183 yards and one play of 20-plus yards apiece from each back for good measure.
Touissant’s ability to gain tough yards between the tackles, assist in pass protection and catch passes out of the backfield blended with Todman’s speed, shiftiness and patience. If one weren’t too careful, they might’ve looked into the backfield and seen 26 or 34 on those jerseys instead of 33 and 30.
Believe it or not, turning the reps over to an inexperienced running back during a playoff run isn’t a totally unfamiliar concept. The Green Bay Packers turned to rookie James Starks, only 29 carries young in his professional career, as their feature back during their playoff run as the no. 6 seed in the NFC in 2010.
Starks answered the call with 315 yards on 88 carries and a touchdown in the four games the Packers played on the way to a Super Bowl XLV victory over… *cough* …the Pittsburgh Steelers. He wasn’t great, but he was good enough to help Green Bay win three of those four games by a touchdown or less.
The Steelers’ running backs don’t have to be great to stay on the road to Levi’s Stadium for Super Bowl 50. But last Saturday night they were good enough to win. And next Sunday night in Denver, they’ll get another chance to do it again.
And in this particular case, maybe two backs are better than one.