DeAngelo Williams driven by skeptics in second act with Steelers

Despite starting just four games, DeAngelo Williams currently ranks 15th in rushing. (Don Wright/AP)

PITTSBURGH -- DeAngelo Williams walks by the letter every day.

It has Carolina Panthers letterhead, it formally informs him of his release and somewhere in it, it references -- as he tells it -- his "diminished skills."

"Best thing they could write me," the 32-year-old Williams said as he loosened the laces on his cleats a couple Sundays ago. Cleats that had just rushed their way to 170 yards. And piled on another 55 receiving yards, too. In this one afternoon, in a much-needed game, for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Funny how washed-up looks. Funny how motivation works.

It's been 11 days since that win over the Raiders, four since another over the Browns put the 6-4 Steelers back atop the AFC wild-card pack. A season ago, the Steelers fell apart when running back Le'Veon Bell was hurt, losing to the rival Ravens at home in a first-round playoff upset. The veteran Williams was signed after his release from the Panthers, to ensure a more capable backup. Now Bell is hurt again, lost for the season, and Williams is a) salving that loss and b) in the midst of a career renaissance. Just don't tell him that second part. Or do.

"He loves that people doubt him," Steelers receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said. "Of course, I'm not sure people doubt him as much as he thinks they do."

This is Williams. He was mock-angry with reporters in May, reminding anyone who'd listen that he had started games for Carolina before coming to Pittsburgh. He wondered why there was surprise at his 127-yard opening outing against New England and his three-touchdown follow-up versus San Francisco (when Bell was serving a suspension). Never mind that no one locally called him a bad signing or questioned his worth. Better to think that "diminished skills" line was a consensus opinion.

"I've been that way my whole life," Williams said, this time after the win over the Browns, one in which he rushed for 54 yards, largely because the Steelers employed the no-huddle offense nearly all game, with the ostensibly hurt Ben Roethlisberger pressed into duty after spot starter Landry Jones turned his ankle. "Remember: I'm too short to be an every-down back."

That might've been a knock when he first came out of Memphis, as a 5-foot-9 1/2 27th overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft. And it might've been a knock, too, by the author of that list he recently tweeted out -- the one that did NOT mention him as one of the season's best free-agent acquisitions. Whether they are slights or not, the Steelers are happy to have Williams think they are.

If Williams has had a national brand before now, it's one tied to breast cancer. His mother, in 2014, and four aunts before then all passed away from the disease. He's made awareness a personal mission; it was his mother, Sandra Kay Hill, who served as the prompt to the NFL allowing players to first wear pink cleats in 2009, five years after she was first diagnosed and 17 after her first sister died.

Williams has generated headlines for the pink he's dyed the ends of his braids and the lengths he'll go to showcase the color of the cause. He was fined this October after wearing eye black stamped with the phrase "We will find a cure," and the pink breast cancer ribbon and the cause is such a part of his life, even his young daughters have espoused the mission. His toenails are painted pink -- "Of course my daughters do that!" he said with a head shake when asked if he or his daughters are responsible for the pedicure -- and he appreciatively talks about the platform he has because of his employment in the NFL.

But now, Williams' repute is again equally about football. In four games as a starter, he has 428 yards on 85 carries. He has 534 rushing yards, 137 receiving yards and five touchdowns on the season, and is a large reason why the Steelers -- who are without their starting center, left tackle and running back -- are still one of the league's most dynamic and dangerous offenses. He's part of a mess of 30-something running backs running all over the league this fall -- a fraternity that includes Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Frank Gore and Justin Forsett -- and he earned one of Mike Tomlin's highest praises last week, a comparison in work ethic and timelessness to the Steelers' real ageless wonder, 37-year old linebacker James Harrison.

He's fit right into this Steelers locker room, consciously averse to stats. ("Last week, I had 170 yards and it translated into a win. This week, I had 54 and it translated into a win," he said. "Wins are all that I'm hunting right now.") Heyward-Bey, who lockers next to him, and defensive end Cam Heyward, who plays garbage-can basketball with him, both said -- verbatim -- "he never shuts up," but both also acknowledged that energy brings a different boost to the practice field.

"He really cares," Heyward said. "It's not about him -- it's about us. He's a real competitor. And he's here at a critical time for us. He's a veteran."

Which is a title that only comes with years of service.

Jerome Bettis, the legendary Steeler running back and newly-minted Hall of Famer, was in town Sunday, and as he watched Williams warm up, he declared him "awesome." But Bettis, who retired 11 days shy of his 34th birthday, has a theory about the whole age thing. He said a running back's true gauge is not on years, but on number of carries.

"DeAngelo only has about 1,500 in his career," Bettis said. (Actually, 1,562, to be exact.) "The really great running backs have 3,000 in them. So he's not really an 'older' back."

Later on, Williams was told what Bettis said. He nodded and said, "Sure, I buy that." Then he grinned real wide and said, "But I'd rather be judged on my age. Then people can keep doubting me."

Follow Aditi Kinkhabwala on Twitter @AKinkhabwala.

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