By: Zach Metkler, GZ Sports Report Writer
After struggling against the Eagles, the Steelers are about to get a big boost of “Juice”.
That “Juice” is Le’Veon Bell.
With his 3-game suspension behind him, Bell will make his season debut against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 4 and the expectations are high for the All-Pro running back. The Steelers showed little signs of life against the Eagles in what was an extremely uncharacteristic loss for the team.
But first, let us take a trip through the past and look at what has led Bell to this point in his career.
- In the second preseason game of his rookie year, Bell suffered a mid-foot sprain, which would sideline him for the first three games of the regular season.
- In August, Bell was arrested with then-teammate LeGarrette Blount on DUI and marijuana possession charges. Bell was sentenced to 15 months probation, a 60-day suspension of his driver’s licensed, mandatory DUI education classes, and a total of $2,400 in court costs.
- Against the Cincinnati Bengals on December 29, Bell hyperextended his knee during a tackle by safety Reggie Nelson, sidelining him for the remainder of the season and the beginning of the offseason.
- Due to the circumstances surrounding the DUI and possession charges, Bell was issued a 4-game suspension to start the 2015 season. However, this suspension was reduced to 3 games on April 9 and after Bell’s appeal, it was reduced to just 2 games.
- On November 1, Bell suffered a torn MCL against the Bengals after taking a hit from linebacker Vontaze Burfict, ending Bell’s season.
- In July, Bell released a rap song titled “Focus”, a song in which he states that “I’m at the top and if not I’m the closest, I’m a need 15 a year and they know this …”
- On July 22, the NFL reported that Bell would be facing a 4-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy for missing multiple scheduled drug tests.
As you can see, Bell’s off the field issues have been more plentiful than you want from a superstar player, especially one that means as much to the Steelers as Bell does. There is no denying that Bell, when on the field, is arguably the best running back in the NFL. With 2016 as a contract year, Bell was on pace to earn a solid payday from an NFL team, whether that was with the Steelers or with another team. Bell’s circumstances were cloudy to begin with due to his back-to-back knee injuries in two consecutive seasons, but his future became even more murky due to the suspension he faced this season.
That type of drama isn’t exactly worth $15 million per year.
But I digress. Now back to the present.
With a healthy and trouble-free Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers have the potential to be one of the greatest offenses the NFL has ever seen (look out, Greatest Show on Turf). Unfortunately, the Steelers have yet to really see the endless potential this offense has due to injuries and suspensions that keep their key players off the field for extended periods of time. With Ben Roethlisberger’s career window slowly closing, the Steelers can’t afford to have players missing ample amounts of time for any reasons.
Antonio Brown can only help carry this offense so far, as seen in Week 3 against the Eagles. Brown had 12 receptions for 140 yards on 18 targets. DeAngelo Williams was second on the team in targets (7) and receptions (4). Sammie Coates had 3 receptions on 4 targets for 50 yards. Undrafted star-in-the-making Eli Rogers only had 2 receptions for 32 yards. With the Steelers inability to find a clear-cut #2 receiver, the Steelers need to find someone else to get the ball to other than Brown.
That is where Le’Veon Bell comes into play.
After having a stellar first two weeks, Williams struggled mightily against the Eagles, with 21 yards on 8 carries for a pathetic 2.62 yards per carry. That isn’t all his fault, however, due to the offensive line’s poor performance. But there is no denying the Le’Veon Bell has the potential to bring more to this offense than Williams, largely due to his ability to be an elite receiving back. In 2014, Bell’s only complete regular season, he had 83 receptions for 854 yards and 3 touchdowns. Those are numbers that some wide receivers wish they could have through a regular season. That season, Bell also rushed for 1,361 yards and 8 touchdowns while averaging 4.7 yards per carry. Before his knee injury last season, Bell was on pace to continue that dominance as he was averaging 4.9 yards per carry with 556 rushing yards through just 5 games. While many people are concerned about the shape of his knee and his conditioning from missing almost an entire calendar year since he last played meaningful football, Mike Tomlin says that Bell will not be working with a limited snap count, showing that the Steelers want (and need) Bell to be on the field to make an impact early and often.
As a receiver out of the backfield, opposing defenses will have headaches trying to cover Bell, Brown, and any other receiver on the offense. Defenses tend to double team Brown, which frees up the receiver(s) opposite of him. Over the middle, linebackers and safeties typically key off on the Steelers’ tight ends, namely Jesse James because of his size. With a player like Bell in the backfield, linebackers will be responsible for covering him, which will create favorable 1-on-1 matchup’s for Jesse James across the middle. Bell has shown time and time again that he is capable of making linebackers look silly across the middle. The play that sticks out the most was his matchup with Rams inside linebacker James Laurinaitis. The Steelers spread out the offense with a four-receiver set that created man coverage for every receiver, including Bell. Bell streaked and sat in the middle of the field but after the receivers had made their way downfield, he spun away from Laurinaitis and made a one-handed grab in the open field with nothing but grass in front of him. This play shows the effectiveness that Bell has as a receiver. This is not to say that Williams is a poor receiving back, but Bell’s versatility out of the backfield simply gives the Steelers more options. Todd Haley has found ways of getting Bell open and creating those 1-on-1 opportunities that he knows Ben Roethlisberger can use to the offenses advantage, not only out of the backfield, but in the slot as well as a 4th receiver.
Bell’s talents are not just as a receiver as he is one of the best runners in the league as well. His superior athletic traits for a player of his size are absolutely elite and his patience and vision make him a threat to break open a huge play or score every time he has the ball. The Steelers love to pull players like All-Pro guard David DeCastro to create more lanes for Bell to use. Even if the lane collapses or Bell can’t find his way through the second level cleanly, his ability to patiently wait and make people miss can turn a negative play into a huge gain. Williams is also a patient, solid running back, as indicated by his 258 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns in the first 3 weeks of the season. But leave no doubt that Bell is arguably the best running back in the league. His ability to make plays out of the backfield both carrying and catching the ball is unparalleled by anyone in the league. The Steelers likely will not have to change their run game much with the return of Bell, expect to see much more Bell check-down’s to keep the defense modest. That will only create opportunities for other players like Brown, James, Coates, Wheaton, and Rogers. While the Steelers offense looked great through the first two weeks of the season, they will need a big boost moving forward and Bell is the guy that can help turn things around.
Expect to see the Steelers offense to get back on track with the return of Bell and the Eagles game behind them.
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