Versatile Bell reveling in heavy workload for Steelers
PITTSBURGH (AP) — The pieces are all there. The footwork. The vision. The patience. The instinctive ability to read a defender, plant a cleat in the ground and go get the ball.
And to think, wide receiver isn’t even Le’Veon Bell’s natural position. At least, not yet.
“I tell him all the time, when he turns 30, when they talk about running backs being done, for the next five years (receiver) is the thing he should do,” Pittsburgh Steelers teammate Darrius Heyward-Bey said.
And Heyward-Bey wasn’t kidding, a testament to the seemingly tireless Bell’s versatility.
Nearing the end of his fourth season, the 24-year-old is still finding new ways to expand his game for the Steelers (6-5).
If that means splitting out wide, so be it. If it means standing next to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and taking out a blitzing linebacker, that’s fine too.
“I think there are probably a lot of quarterbacks in this league that when their running back is blocking, they’re probably a little nervous and peeking over their shoulder,” Roethlisberger said.
“I never have that fear. And I know in the pass game that he’s going to get open, he’s going to make catches and make plays. And then, we all know what he can do in the run game.”
Meaning pretty much whatever he wants. In the midst of a tailspin in early November, Pittsburgh turned it around by turning to Bell.
In the span of five days, Bell touched the ball 63 times (51 carries, 12 receptions) and piled up 343 yards and a couple of touchdowns in victories over Cleveland and Indianapolis .
No play went longer than 22 yards, yet Bell’s ever churning legs kept the ball moving, the clock running and his teammates grasping for superlatives.
“He’s the best all-around in the game,” Roethlisberger said.
One who is “balling out the cage” as the aspiring hip-hop artist put it on the recently released track “Rappin Athlete .”
A year removed from a torn ligament in his right knee that forced him to miss the second half of 2015, Bell looks as if he’s all the way back to the All-Pro form he showed in 2014 when he put up 2,215 yards of total offense.
While he’s well aware of the heavy workload he’s carried lately, he’s also hardly bothered by it. Last he checked, the Steelers paid him to have the ball in his hands.
“I’m just kind of used to playing,” Bell said. “I don’t ever think about the snap count in my head. I feel like at any moment in the game one play can change everything, so I want to be in the game and I can be the reason why the game changes.”
And potentially changing the way the game is played.
While there have been running backs who are productive in the passing game before — most notably Roger Craig and LaDainian Tomlinson — Bell is a man apart.
When the Steelers go to a five-wide set, Bell will find his 6-foot-2 frame across the line from a smaller defensive back and let his route running and exceptional hands go to work.
His first touchdown reception of the season came against Dallas three weeks ago when Bell lined up on the outside, stutter-stepped then ducked inside on a quick slant to beat Cowboys safety JJ Wilcox for a 2-yard score.
Perhaps the most startling thing about the play was the way Bell caught the fastball from Roethlisberger, casually stretching his hands out in front of him with an assured confidence to rival superstar teammate Antonio Brown.
“The crazy thing is he doesn’t even know why he’s doing it,” Heyward-Bey said. “Once he figures out why he’s doing it, you’re talking about a running back we’ve never seen before.”
New York coach Ben McAdoo, who brings the streaking Giants (8-3) to Heinz Field on Sunday, described Bell as a “magnet.”
One playing the best football of his still-brief career at a pivotal time. Twice suspended by the league for violating the substance policy, Bell will be a free agent next spring.
The Steelers declined to offer Bell a new deal last summer — something they regularly do to stars entering the final year of their contract — wanting to make sure Bell’s off the field issues were firmly in the past.
Bell is hesitant to talk about his long-term future. For now simply trying to get Pittsburgh back to the playoffs is enough. It’s a place he’s never been thank to knee injuries that cut each of his past two seasons short.
Finally healthy, the guy who goes by “Juice” is determined not to miss out this time around.
“We’ve been doing what we need to do to win games,” he said. “Whether it’s running, catching, blocking, we just want to make sure we win the game.”