Rookie running back Le’Veon Bell isn’t even a year into his NFL career, but he’s already asserting himself as the next man up in a growing line of workhorse running backs for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Bell, who was taken in the second round (No. 48 overall) out of Michigan State in last year’s NFL Draft, got off to a slow start after a sore left knee and sprained right foot robbed him of most of the preseason and the first three weeks of the regular season.
Ever since, he’s provided the punch that Steelers fans have been used to seeing out of the running back position, a punch that has been missing for quite some time.
Going all the way back to Franco Harris, and as recently as Jerome Bettis and Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers football has often been identified with power running. Once Mendenhall’s career started to take a downturn, the Steelers’ running back position took on the look of a revolving door riddled with injuries, fumbles and new names.
Bell has been the Steelers’ answer to the position. He’s gained more than 1,000 total yards in 12 games (770 rushing, 393 receiving) to go along with seven touchdowns. He needs only 73 yards from scrimmage to pass Harris (1,235 yards) for the most by a Steelers’ rookie since 1960.
He also had his best game of the year last week, rushing for 124 yards and a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers. It was the first time in 23 games the Steelers had a 100-yard rusher. Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton, formerly with the Steelers, said that was an odd number to hear.
Inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson sees Bell as a history lesson.
“He’s developing into the prototypical Steeler running back,” Jackson said. “He’s a bigger guy. He gets tough yardage for them. Every game I’ve watched since we’ve played them, he’s gotten better and better. They’re going to try to establish the run and as of late he’s been doing a phenomenal job.”
Besides proving he can handle a heavy workload (at least 20 touches in eight consecutive games), Bell has added a new wrinkle to the traditional Steelers power back: he’s just as effective in the passing game, whether it be catching passes out of the backfield or blocking.
“In pass protection, that’s what can set you apart from a lot of backs,” Bell said in a conference call with Browns reporters. “If you have to come off the field on third down, you’re not really helping your team out. So I try my best to be a balanced type runner, balanced type of back, and making the offense that much better.”
Bell has 44 receptions this season and is only seven short of John L. Williams’ franchise record of 51 catches by a running back since 1950.
He’s been so good that the Steelers have even lined him up out wide, using a quick throw from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to get Bell the ball on the edge.
“He’s a tough, downhill runner but I think the added dimension for him is, we’re talking about this empty formation [in the backfield], how quickly they throw the ball outside, he’s become a favorite of Ben flanked out,” Horton said. “He just stands up and throws the ball to him and it’s a long handoff.”
Browns running back Edwin Baker knows Bell well. The two were teammates at Michigan State in 2010 and 2011. Both said this week they’ll reach out to the other before the game today. Baker, who was a year ahead of Bell, knew right away that he could be something special.
“From the first time he stepped on campus, he made a great impression,” Baker said. “As a freshman, there’s not a lot of players that can do that, come right in and play a role like he did.”
Bell did something similar in Pittsburgh. He impressed Steelers coach Mike Tomlin enough in training camp to possibly give him a major role. Then injuries pushed back when Bell was able first to make an impact.
“He got off to a great start in training camp. Really since he’s been healthy, it’s been more about him continuing what he did when he first got here,” Tomlin said.
Bell faces a Browns’ run defense reeling after giving up 387 rushing yards the past two weeks to the Chicago Bears and New York Jets. Jackson says the defense needs to go back to simply doing its job, as it was earlier in the season.
“Just do your job. Just stay disciplined,” Jackson said. “Give the guys credit that we played but you go back and watch the film and we’re running the same defense we were running the first week of the season. It’s just guys trying to make a play and do too much instead of relying on the guy next to you.”
Jackson knows what the Browns need to do to defend the run. And he knows what a workhouse Steelers running back looks like.
And he knows Bell could be next.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at https://ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.