Only one person can create an art form, but anyone can transform it. Novels existed long before Hemingway and films long before Kubrick, but both are accepted as inimitable stylists. They were innovators, displaying unmatched genius while shaping the future of their respective fields. Right now, what Le’Veon Bell is doing isn’t all that different.
This season, during which he became the first player in NFL history to average at least 100 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards per game, Bell’s singular running style went from curiosity to phenomenon. During last Sunday’s broadcast of Pittsburgh’s 18–16 divisional-round win over Kansas City, when Bell ran for 170 yards, there were moments when NBC’s Cris Collinsworth was overtaken by incredulity. No one can seem to understand how someone can run this way, coming to a full stop on virtually every carry before finding the perfect crease for another soul-crushing 6-yard gain. Now in his fourth year in the league, Bell has become a football rarity — a player defined more by process than production.
"I don’t know if I’ve seen any running backs throughout my time — and even going back to study the older guys that came before me — I’ve never seen a guy come to a complete stop as much as he does," says former Chargers great LaDainian Tomlinson, the future Hall of Famer and current NFL Network analyst. "That’s a style that truly works for him."
Playing in only 12 games this regular season, Bell finished with 1,888 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns. His 337 rushing yards in these playoffs are the most ever in a player’s first two postseason games. In lifting Pittsburgh to Sunday’s AFC championship game in New England, Bell has proven to be a running back auteur the likes of which we’ve never seen, the Hitchcock of halfbacks. And as the Steelers search for their seventh Lombardi Trophy, they’ll look to their visionary talent to lead them.
Patience — if not to this degree — has forever been Bell’s signature trait as a runner. He came to Michigan State in 2010 a month shy of his 18th birthday, and even then, the pillars of what we see now were already in place. "He always had such great patience but then very good explosion," says Brad Salem, Bell’s running backs coach with the Spartans. "Obviously, I think that changed and grew from year to year."
Figuring out how Bell can run the way he does starts with the questions he asked upon arriving in East Lansing. Salem marveled at the then-teenager’s desire to grasp not only his role, but also everyone else’s on the offense. It wasn’t long before Bell could draw up entire plays, complete with wide receiver assignments, pulling guard movements, and the aim of every combination block. Blocking schemes are a full-contact puzzle; Bell wanted to know how all the pieces fit together.
That level of understanding is constantly on display with the way Bell runs now. When he throttles down as he approaches the line of scrimmage, it may appear as if he’s waiting for an opening. Just as often, though, he’s trying to create one. By hesitating at the right moments, Bell can influence a linebacker’s path, causing him to halt in the ideal spot to ease the burden of an offensive lineman who’s fighting off a double team and moving to the second level. "[To] try to set your blocks up basically by pausing, and then stepping left, stepping right, knowing exactly where combos are coming from, man, it’s a lot of things to be thinking about," says former Broncos star and current NFL Network analyst Terrell Davis. Few backs in the league are interested in learning the intricacies of their line’s assignments, let alone mastering them. The fear is that an information overload could slow them down, but even that speaks to Bell’s atypicality — slowing down is what he wants.
Beyond Bell’s development, one reason the Steelers running game has become such a world-destroying force down the stretch (Bell has run for 1,172 yards over his last eight games) is that studying his line has required far less material than in years past. Combined, Pittsburgh’s 2016 offensive line starters have missed six starts. That’s a far cry from the piecemeal, decimated groups that Bell has run behind at times during his career, and the continuity has allowed him to get an even firmer handle on how and when his linemen will make certain choices.
"I always wanted to learn when my guy had a block," says Marshall Faulk, a former Rams legend, Hall of Fame running back, and NFL Network analyst, "when he had a guy hooked, when he was kicking a guy out. So you have to learn the individuals, and then you have to learn the line as a whole. And [Bell] has done a really good job."
Bell’s ability, as Salem puts it, to "fit his linemen" onto defenders by threatening specific leverage points is the most important effect of his waiiiit-for-it approach, but there’s no shortage of plays in which his brilliance simply takes over. Bell has moments that would only seem possible if he sees the world like Neo from The Matrix. "His style allows him to take in everything a defense is doing at that very moment," Tomlinson says.
"Vision" is a term that comes up constantly in connection with Bell, but to the great former backs who watch him now, what stands out even more is Bell’s control. Like quarterbacks, every runner keeps a clock in his head, a ticking timebomb dictating when he should hit a hole. Somehow, Bell has extended his fuse, unafraid of the explosion waiting at the end. "His mind, it’s unique because he has the ability to wait longer … before he’s going to be tackled," Tomlinson says. "That’s God-given. You can’t develop that."
Maurice Jones-Drew first met Bell before the Steelers running back’s rookie season in 2013. The two share an agent, and over the past four years have developed a strong bond. In the offseason they speak weekly, and when Bell was suspended to open the 2016 campaign after he missed multiple drug tests, the former Jaguars standout regularly checked in.
Part of Bell’s routine during those three weeks, Jones-Drew says, involved running 500 routes per day on the indoor field at the Steelers facility on the Monongahela River. "Every route from every position in the route tree," Jones-Drew says. "Two, three, four times, because he wanted to show them that he can be a viable option out of the backfield." When Bell returned to action in a Week 4 rout of the Chiefs, the Steelers made him a more integral part of their passing game than any other back in football. Bell finished the season with 94 targets, second-most among running backs. His 7.83 targets per game was the sixth-highest average at the position since 1992. Only Antonio Brown had more receptions for Pittsburgh, and in the games that Bell played, he accounted for nearly one-fifth (19.3 percent) of the team’s yardage through the air.
Bell’s understanding of the entire Steelers scheme and where it puts the greatest strain on a defense also plays into his effectiveness as a receiver. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley loves using Bell on option routes out of the backfield. In space, he’s free to toy with linebackers much like he does when the ball is in his hands. By waiting until the last possible moment to make a decision, he paralyzes defenders who already had little prayer of sticking with him in coverage.
Few make it look better, but most backs in the NFL are capable of running at least some version of those routes. As a receiving weapon, Bell is peerless because the Steelers ask him to run every route. Tomlinson remembers a play from Pittsburgh’s win over the Chiefs in Week 4 in which Bell, lined up wide right, ran a dig on second-and-10. Bell casually shook off his man and snagged a simple throw from Ben Roethlisberger for an 8-yard gain.
Tomlinson is one of the best pass-catching backs of all time (only Larry Centers and Faulk have more career receptions). Still, when he watches Bell, he’s in awe just like the rest of us.
"If he needed to play wide receiver, he could do it," Tomlinson says. "I could never play the wide receiver position the entire season. I couldn’t do that. I was a runner who could also catch the ball out of the backfield. He’s a runner that can also play wide receiver."
Early in the second quarter of last Sunday’s win over Kansas City, on a second-and-10 from the Chiefs’ 17-yard line, Bell took a handoff from a shotgun formation and slowly made his way forward. After pausing for a beat, he bounced off left tackle and was flattened by safety Eric Berry — who was screaming downhill — for a 1-yard loss.
It was an odd sight, to watch Bell get tagged that hard behind the line of scrimmage. Despite how often Bell stands still, he almost never makes for an easy target. "You see that a lot when he runs, it’s just how he makes people miss," Salem says. "He does a good job, we always talked, in terms of dividing the defender in half. He very rarely will get squared up by a defender. He’ll always end up on the back half or the front half of a defender. So he never really takes shots."
In the regular season, Bell was tackled for a loss on 13 carries. By contrast, Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi — who finished the 2016 campaign with the same number of carries — was dropped behind the line 37 times. For Bell, even plays that look modest on the stat sheet can provide openings for the spectacular. "Sometimes it’s [a not-flashy] 6-yard run, but it probably should’ve been a 2-yard run," Salem says. "He makes some of the most beautiful 6- to 8-yard runs that you’re ever going to see."
Bell’s slipperiness helps in that regard, but his patience also has a way of luring defenders to play at his speed. Linebackers typically base their choices off certain triggers from offensive linemen and running backs. Over time, they see actions enough to elicit subconscious mechanisms that are reliant on muscle memory. "If he’s coming downhill, full-go, that’s easy for a backer," Davis says. "The backer sees that — ‘Oh I’m going at him.’ Bam, then you got a collision." Bell’s movements are so unusual that opposing players struggle in deciding how to react. When he stops, they stop. It’s a hypnotic call-and-response relationship that makes a defender’s countless hours of repetition obsolete and puts Bell in total control.
"He has the unique ability to go from zero to 30 and 40 in no time," Faulk says. "So if he’s being patient and then you’re patient, he takes off running and hits the hole, and you’re like, ‘Oh shit, he went through already.’"
At Michigan State, Salem noticed how Bell could power down, change direction, and start moving again with a single step — where it might take other backs two or three to just slow their momentum. Jones-Drew points to how Bell’s decision to drop from 244 to 225 pounds when transitioning from college to the NFL made his single-cut acceleration even more lethal.
Together, all of Bell’s traits — the knowledge, the patience, and the explosion — combine to make a player unlike any other. And this week, an unparalleled back will meet an unparalleled mind. Bill Belichick and the Patriots are notorious for snuffing out what an offense does best, and for this version of the Steelers, that means using Bell’s style against him. Faulk thinks New England will shoot gaps as a way to dictate the game to Bell, rather than allowing things to play out the other way around. But both Faulk and Belichick have cautioned against being overaggressive. "[Bell] really forces everybody to be sound in their gaps," Belichick said in a press conference this week. "Getting off and jumping around blocks or trying to get to the hole too quickly just opens up cutback lanes or stays in the front somewhere and he does a great job of finding it. Team defense is the only way to stop it. There’s no one guy that can stop him."
Belichick seems to know what so many other teams have discovered: No matter how you choose to attack him, Bell is typically one step ahead.
It’s natural, when presented with the unknown, to put things in terms that we understand. In trying to describe Bell’s style, Jones-Drew compares it to race walking in the Olympics. Faulk likens it to ice-skating. Tomlinson just knows that whatever he’s watching, he’s watching it for the first time. "It’s something — to this extreme — that we haven’t seen," he says.
Running back is an inherently inventive position. Aiming points and built-in countersteps are part of any offense, but after the snap a team’s best-laid plans can go to waste in a hurry. "You can have a set point of where the play’s supposed to go, who’s supposed to block who, but it almost never goes that way," Tomlinson says. "So you have to be creative in the way you run." Even a legend like LT delights in watching someone bring new flourishes to that art. "It’s always fun to see something you’ve never seen before," Tomlinson says. "You admire the way it’s done."
Jones-Drew makes his home in the Bay Area. Over the last few years, he’s watched as kids across Northern California have molded their basketball games after Warriors star Steph Curry — launching 3s and slicing through defenses with previously unseen panache. This fall, while watching his two sons play football in the backyard, he’s noticed that Bell’s style has taken a similar hold. "They watched me play my whole career, and I catch them doing the dead leg that Le’Veon Bell does," Jones-Drew says. "I never did it. That was never my game."
Like Curry transformed the NBA, Bell is altering what we believe a running back can be. He’s changing the game, and doing it with a genius all his own.