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Steelers don’t need Bell, Bryant to rout 49ers

When an NFL team wins as emphatically as the Pittsburgh Steelers did on Sunday, pundits often trot out an old sports cliche and say that the team is “sending a message.”

The Steelers sure did send a message by torching the San Francisco 49ers 43-18 at Heinz Field.

The recipients of this message aren’t necessarily the rest of the teams on the Steelers’ schedule. Rather, the Steelers served this notice to two of their own teammates.

At least it seemed that way.

Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant now know that their replacements can help this offense light up the scoreboard. The lesson here should be that if they let the team down again, life can go on without them.

This is the first time the Steelers (1-1) have won without Bell. They lost their five previous games without him, including last year’s AFC wild card game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Part of the reason they couldn’t win without Bell is because he was backed up by practice squad talent, malcontents and retreads.

DeAngelo Williams, technically, is a retread. The Steelers signed the 32-year-old after he was released by the Carolina Panthers during the offseason. But there’s still plenty of tread on those tires.

Williams put the Steelers’ red zone woes to rest at least for a week. He tied a franchise record with three rushing touchdowns. Two of them came from two yards out and one from a yard out as the Steelers scored touchdowns on all five of their trips inside the 20.

In two games, Williams has run for 204 yards on 41 carries, a hair below five yards per carry. No one knows for sure that Williams won’t go all Blount and walk out on the team if he doesn’t get a carry in a game after Bell returns. But it doesn’t seem likely because he doesn’t come with the baggage that Blount came with and he’s used to sharing carries from his days in Carolina.

Bell comes back from his two-game suspension next week, so Williams will lose some carries. But except for Jordan Todman’s garbage-time carry with less than three minutes left, Williams was the only Steelers running back to touch the ball Sunday. He went above and beyond the call of duty filling in during Bell’s suspension and the Steelers rewarded him by feeding him the ball at the goal line.

The Steelers also wanted Darrius Heyward-Bey to get his touchdown taste. He was targeted five times Sunday. Antonio Brown was the only Steeler who Ben Roethlisberger threw to more. Heyward-Bey responded with four catches for 77 yards and a touchdown, his first as a Steeler. It gave the Steelers a 22-3 lead in the second quarter.

Bryant’s four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy has moved Heyward-Bey up the depth chart. The Raiders overdrafted him, taking him seventh overall in 2009. He hasn’t produced at a first-round level, but like Williams he’s crushed his role with the Steelers.

Even before the season, Roethlisberger praised Heyward-Bey, according to NFL.com.

There’s no such praise coming Bell’s way or Bryant’s way at the moment. NFL players do things a lot worse than smoking marijuana, but Bell smoked and drove two hours before a team flight to Philadelphia for a 2014 preseason game. The consequences of his actions – he originally was suspended for three games – put the Steelers in danger of their second 0-for-September in three years.

Thanks to Williams, the Steelers didn’t feel Bell’s void in their Week 1 loss at New England as much as they felt Bryant’s absence. Despite all the kooky play-calling, clueless clock management and failure to put a body on Rob Gronkowski, the Steelers only lost to the Patriots by seven points. Bryant scored touchdowns in six of the 10 games he played last year and the Steelers were 8-2 in those games. His suspension robbed the Steelers of that game-changing talent in New England.

Going into last season, the Steelers hadn’t scored 40 points in a game since 2010, their last Super Bowl season. They broke the 40-point barrier three times after Bryant was activated in 2014.

On Sunday, the Steelers showed they can cook up a 40-burger without Bryant and enjoyed their most one-sided post-Tebow margin of victory. The 25-point cushion was their biggest since they beat the St. Louis Rams 27-0 in 2011, two weeks before Tim Tebow set this franchise on a sideways path that it finally began re-tracing last year.

The loss of Maurkice Pouncey to a broken ankle was another compromise to the offense’s high-powered promise. But Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked Sunday and he’s been taken down just twice this season. Meanwhile, the line has paved the way to 4.36 yards per carry. The unit, for now, has been able to make do without Pouncey.

Unlike Bell and Bryant, it’s not Pouncey’s fault that he’s not on the field. It wasn’t his choice to get injured.

Bell and Bryant, on the other hand, made choices that led to their suspensions. Hopefully what the Steelers accomplished Sunday will make them think twice before making those choices again.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

 

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