Le’Veon Bell might be the best running back in the league — but the Steelers don’t need him to run.
After missing close to a full season’s worth of games due to injury and suspension, Bell will return on Sunday against Kansas City. He’ll provide a boost to the Steelers’ ground game, but the running back time-share in Pittsburgh, which was previously dominated by a healthy Bell, could swing back toward a more balanced approach as the days of the NFL’s three-down workhorse continue to fade into memory. Pittsburgh has already talked about getting DeAngelo Williams, Bell’s “backup” who has started 13 games since the start of last year, onto the field along with their prodigal son. Williams has more than earned that. The former Panther has racked up 1,165 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns in relief dating back to the start of last year. And the Steelers’ run game scarcely missed Bell the first two weeks of the season anyway: Williams ran all over the Redskins and Bengals to the tune of 237 yards and two rushing touchdowns on 58 carries, and Pittsburgh pushed out to a quick 2–0 start. But the Steelers’ Week 3 loss to the Eagles shined a light on a bigger issue for Pittsburgh in 2016: the lack of punch in their passing game.
Ben Roethlisberger struggled badly in the 34–3 loss, completing just 24 of 44 passes for 257 yards with one interception and a lost fumble. It was the low point for a passing offense that hasn’t lived up to expectations this year. Granted, those were sky-high expectations, but for good reason: In the 12 games that Big Ben played in last year, Pittsburgh’s passing offense produced at a near-historic rate. Roethlisberger averaged a league-high 328.2 passing yards per game, which would translate to 5,251 yards over a full season, or the third-highest total in NFL history.
But through three weeks, the pass attack has been anemic, as they’ve averaged just 254 passing yards per game (13th) and 6.9 yards per attempt (tied for 21st). The lack of depth at receiver has shown up: Martavis Bryant is suspended; Markus Wheaton was hurt, then struggled with drops; Eli Rogers faced a steep learning curve, then got hurt; and Sammie Coates is basically a one-trick deep-ball pony with bad hands. Antonio Brown’s all-worldness can do only so much, but with Bell’s return, that dynamic changes. Bell is, realistically, the Steelers’ second-best receiver, and his talent as a pass catcher is the most important factor he brings back to Pittsburgh’s offense.
While the Steelers’ scheme doesn’t change drastically with Bell’s return, putting him on the field changes everything about the way opposing defenses must prepare: Bell has unique abilities as a receiver out of the backfield, and if you don’t account for him as both a runner and receiver, he’ll make you pay. Pittsburgh’s run-pass options become impossible to predict. When Bell is out there, it allows offensive coordinator Todd Haley and Roethlisberger to attack vulnerabilities — whether it’s a slow-footed linebacker in coverage or a smaller nickelback against the run — on every down. No matter what personnel the Steelers have on the field, no matter what formation they line up in, when a half running back, half receiver like Bell is out there, Big Ben can check into any play — run or pass — to exploit the looks that opposing defenses present.
Bell missed the final eight regular-season games and the playoffs of 2015 with MCL and PCL injuries, and then sat out the first three games this year after violating the league’s substance abuse policy, so Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh will mark the first time since November that we’ve seen him on the field.
Since it’s been nearly a year, it’s easy to forget just how dynamic Bell is as a runner. He mixes speed and power with excellent patience to let plays develop, and has the lateral agility to make defenders miss. In 2014, Bell’s last full season, he rushed for 1,361 yards and eight touchdowns, forcing 59 missed tackles, second only to Marshawn Lynch. In an injury-shortened 2015, he led the NFL in yards after contact per rush. Remember this guy? The runner whose sudden cuts regularly made defenders dive at a cloud of dust?
In addition to making defenders chase shadows, Bell is an amazingly patient runner. He can explode downhill like he’s been shot out of a cannon when holes are there, but when the Steelers are running slower-developing blocking schemes, timing is everything. In three runs from last year against the Chiefs and Cardinals, it was Bell’s stutter step, which he did right after taking the handoff, that allowed his blockers to reach their defenders. He then made his move once those blocks had opened up lanes. It’s extremely difficult to be patient as a runner and still pack punch downhill, but Bell is a rare talent.
It’s this combination of explosive agility and restraint that makes Bell such an effective weapon as a receiver out of the backfield as well. These skills show up consistently in one unspectacular, but important, area of the passing game: the dump-off.
Pittsburgh is never afraid to throw the ball deep, but sometimes those slow-developing deep routes don’t come open, and that leaves Roethlisberger in a tough spot: Does he throw it up, dump it off, or improvise?
Getting Bell back is a big deal on plays like this, because Big Ben won’t have to press the issue downfield quite as much as he has in the early going this season. Roethlisberger has thrown into coverage or made ill-advised throws downfield a few too many times this year, and three out of his four picks have come on these off-target deep balls. But Bell will give him just a dangerous option underneath. Bell led all running backs with 854 receiving yards in 2014–826 of which came after the catch, the most since Pro Football Focus started tracking the stat in 2007. While DeAngelo Williams is a fine receiver out of the backfield, not many guys can take a swing pass and do this with ease.
Roethlisberger loves to look for Bell as a second option on simple angle routes. On both of these plays from 2014 below, the first for a touchdown against the Bengals and the second against the Saints, Bell drew coverage from a linebacker as he leaked out of the backfield, and neither Emmanuel Lamur nor Curtis Lofton had a chance in hell in defending his route. As Roethlisberger decided against throwing to his first read, he knew that he’d have Bell as his dump-off option.
The Steelers design plays for Bell as the primary receiver, too. Against the Rams in Week 3 last year, in a third-and-5 situation, Haley dialed up an isolation route for Bell, where he was asked to beat a linebacker in man-to-man coverage. On the play, Pittsburgh’s outside receivers all ran out-breaking routes, which cleared a huge swath up the middle of the field for Bell to work with. He beat a hold by James Laurinaitis, pivoted, made a one-handed grab, then broke it off for a big gain.
If that’s not enough, Pittsburgh also looks to exploit the mismatches Bell creates by splitting him out wide to run routes as a de facto receiver. In that same game in St. Louis, Bell motioned out to the wing, and was followed in man coverage by linebacker Alec Ogletree. Bell juked as if he were running a quick slant, Ogletree bit, and then Bell faded back toward the sideline. Michael Vick’s pass hung in the air, but Bell went up and got it. It’s rare to see running backs with that kind of body control and with hands that strong in the passing game.
With the Steelers’ plan to put both Williams and Bell on the field at the same time, we may see even more creative usage for Bell as a receiver out of the backfield this season. It will be a boon for Roethlisberger, whose passing numbers are significantly better with Bell in the lineup. As Behind the Steel Curtain pointed out, Big Ben has 56 touchdowns to just 20 interceptions in 29 games with Bell on the field dating back to 2013, compared to 33 touchdowns and 25 picks in 20 games without him. Bell takes some weight off of Roethlisberger’s shoulders with what he brings to Pittsburgh’s ground game, but his abilities as a receiver add another dimension to their passing game. The worth of the pure running back might be declining, but by becoming a receiver, too, Bell is as valuable as ever.