But when the Steelers’ last saw action – against Cincinnati last Sunday night at Heinz Field – running back Le’Veon Bell touched the ball on nine of the first 10 offensive snaps and on 12 of the first 16.
“That’s what they told me,” Bell observed after Sunday night’s 30-20 triumph. “That was part of the game plan, get me involved early. We did that.”
When the season began, the Steelers were merely trying to get Bell into a game that mattered. Knee and foot injuries limited Bell to just one preseason appearance and delayed his regular season debut until the team’s Sept. 29 game against Minnesota in London. Now, the No. 2 pick from Michigan State isn’t just in the game, he’s involved to the degree that at times the offense is running though him by design.
Bell has responded with 1,034 yards from scrimmage in his first 11 NFL games, the third-highest total for a rookie in Steelers’ history.
With 7 yards on Sunday in Green Bay, Bell will top Bam Morris’ total of 1,040 in 1994. And with 202 yards rushing and receiving over the final two regular-season games Bell will surpass Franco Harris’ rookie-record 1,235 in 1972.
“The touches and stuff, I love the way they give me the ball, out of the backfield, running the ball,” Bell said. “Whatever it may be I get the opportunity to make plays. When the plays present themselves I do the best I can to make a play. We’ll see how it goes. I’m going to continue to try to get better and do what I can.”
BACKS OF THE FUTURE
The comparisons are inevitable and will continue to be in subsequent seasons, but particularly so last week and this week. That’s because the first four backs selected in the 2013 NFL draft were Giovani Bernard (Cincinnati), Bell (Pittsburgh), Montee Ball (Denver) and Eddie Lacy (Green Bay), all in the second round.
Lacy has made the biggest initial splash, and his 1,264 yards from scrimmage (1,028 of it rushing) leads the Class of 2013, followed by Bernard’s 1,069, Bell’s 1,034, and Ball’s 578.
Coach Mike Tomlin referenced Lacy this week as “a top-quality back.” Not surprisingly, Tomlin still likes his guy, “just like I’m sure Cincinnati went through the same discussions and thoughts when they took Giovani Bernard in front of both of them.”
ESPN analyst and former Steelers running back Merril Hoge likes Tomlin’s guy, too.
“I loved Le’Veon Bell coming out,” Hoge told WDVE-FM this week. “He’s so dynamic laterally and vertically with his feet. His feet are so quick, that’s one thing that helps a runner transition to the National Football League. Lacy’s not that versatile; Bernard is actually a versatile player but he’s not as complete.
“I like Bell the best of all of them. He’s the most complete and the most versatile of the four. And his style, he doesn’t take big hits. He does a good job avoiding them but he runs powerful, which is a big plus. He needs to get some help up front. If that offensive line comes together and they get better, you’ll see a lot bigger things from Le’Veon Bell down the road.”
Bell isn’t playing to best Lacy, or to break any of Harris’ rookie records, for that matter. He came to Pittsburgh to make plays, not history.
“I didn’t have any goals, nothing,” he said. “I just wanted to get better each and every week. I’m glad I accomplished what I did. Obviously, my teammates and coaches, you can’t do it without them. I just wanted to come in and get better. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”
EVOLVING WITH THE OFFENSE
Bell arrived as a proven pass-catching commodity, “kind of ready-made in that capacity,” Tomlin said.
Bell’s 43 receptions this season already put him in some elite company among the pass-catching backs in franchise history, and all of those guys are well within his reach with two more games to play. Ray Mathews had 44 catches in 1954; Walter Abercrombie had 47 in 1986; Frenchy Fuqua had 49 in 1971; Hoge had 50 in 1988; and John L. Williams holds the franchise record for the position with 51 in 1994.
New this season – both to Bell and to the Steelers offense – has been the number of snaps run in the no-huddle from shotgun formation.
“I don’t look at it as tougher, it’s just different,” Bell said. “I’m not running from the home position. It’s a little different running from the shotgun. I like gun-runs, though. The no-huddle throws the defense off a little bit, they’re not as settled. There are pros and cons to both. We’re putting more and more no-huddle in, definitely starting to get more advanced in it. I’m just glad to have the opportunity to be out there and make the play when it’s there.
“The way we’re playing now, we learned from what happened in the beginning of the season. We’ve learned from what happened the previous week. We got better each and every week. Sometimes we’ll lose a game or win a game, I still see us getting better. That’s all we really can do.”