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The Bell's toll

Posted Dec 21, 2017

Steelers want to keep rotation going at running back.

The touches have piled up at a historic rate this season but you’d never be able to tell by watching running back Le’Veon Bell.

“I feel fresh right now, I feel good,” Bell maintained. “I got hit on my knee two weeks ago, the Ravens game. I came back, the Patriots game, played through a little pain, but now I feel great.”

The Steelers intend to keep getting the ball to Bell as much as necessary, and to keep him feeling as fresh and ready to rock as they can in the process, on Christmas Day in Houston and beyond.

“He was building carries as the year went last year,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley explained regarding Bell, who was suspended for the first three games in 2016 and wound up with 261 carries and 337 touches in the regular season. “This year he had such a heavy dose there in the middle of the season, I think you gotta be smart.”

Bell carried 24 times for 117 yards (a 4.9 average per) in the Steelers’ 27-24 loss to the Patriots last Sunday. He also caught five passes for 48 yards.

Bell’s 307 rushing attempts in 2017 are the 10th-most in Steelers’ history and his 307 career catches (80 this season) are the most by a running back in franchise history.

That’s a combined 387 touches this season, more than Bell has had in any of his four previous seasons with the Steelers.

That’s 27.6 per game, a pace that has Bell on track to surpass Barry Foster’s 429 touches in 1992 for the most in franchise history in a single season (Jerome Bettis is second with 390 in 1997).

With wide receiver Antonio Brown (calf) out for Monday’s still-meaningful regular-season road finale and running back James Conner (knee) out for the season, how Bell will be used and how often could potentially become an even more complicated proposition.

“I’m prepared for whatever load they give me, a lotta catches, a lotta runs,” he insisted. “I just want to make sure we get out of the stadium with a win.”

Bell had averaged 29.5 carries per game in a four-game stretch from Oct. 15 at Kansas City through Nov. 12 at Indianapolis, the “heavy dose” Haley had referenced.

Bell surpassed 20 rushing attempts in a game for the first time since then in the Patriots game.

Conner carried three times against New England and running back Fitz Toussiant also had a carry.

“Those guys have been doing a good job of really coming in and being able to give me a rest, and when I am in the game, I’m fresh, I feel good, I’m able to be explosive each and every play,” Bell said. “I understand I have to kind of take a play off or kind of rest on a play if I know it’s not coming to me.

“It’s always been good having a little rotation, it’s been working.”

Veteran running back Stevan Ridley (5-foot-11, 230 pounds) was signed this week after Conner was placed on the reserve/injured list. Ridley rushed 658 times for 2,914 yards in six NFL seasons with New England, Arizona and Atlanta.

Ridley, described by Haley as an “experienced, big back,” was with Denver (in the preseason) and Minnesota previously this season but didn’t appear in a game.

“They went and got Ridley, we have to make sure he kind of knows things,” Bell said. “But I kinda think they want to do the same thing, get Fitz in there, Stevan, kinda just sprinkle those guys in there, allow me to rest a little bit for a time, and then when it’s time for my time to go, I’ll be fresh.”

Bell leads the NFL in rushing (1,222 yards), yards from scrimmage (1,849) and first downs (99).

But the Steelers intend to keep providing him with a little help.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Haley said. “We have Fitz, who’s been around a good while. And working Ridley into the mix here pretty quick, he’s a guy that’s played in the league and played well in the preseason.

“I would think we have to and will continue to mix in a couple guys.”

Added Bell: “We want to run the ball. We don’t want to have too many carries on my body but we still want to run the ball a lot. When James was in there he was taking some carries off me but we were still running the ball at them. It takes a lot of toughness for a team to be able to tackle guys like me and James because we’re bigger guys, run downhill, they have to worry about our offensive linemen.

“The more runs we’re able to get at people, the better.”