You're exactly right on your last point. The stock steps only offer minimal
protection, like maybe from someone opening a low car door in the parking spot next to you.
Someone here (I can't remember who) mentioned removing them after finding that the steps had caused warping at the mount.
You'll really want something that's attached to the frame if you need more protection than that.
I opted to skip the factory steps and get something after the fact:
Rugged Ridge RRC Side Armor.