Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell was regarded as a big back during his collegiate career at Michigan State, approaching the 250 pound mark at 6’1”. He’s still a big back in his second season in the NFL, despite being more than 20 pounds lighter.
But the weight drop has made a significant difference on the field in 2014, as evidenced by his 81-yard breakaway carry on Sunday night against the Carolina Panthers, which nearly doubled the longest run he’d had before.
Head coach Mike Tomlin discussed Bell’s slighter frame and its impact on his performance, and he related a conversation that he had with the NFL’s leader in total yardage before he was even with the team, saying that he told Bell his professional playing weight would be lighter than he was used to in college.
Explaining that the NFL was a game for the highly-conditioned athlete, Tomlin told his eventual starting running back that he would need to be more mindful of his fitness to get the most out of his natural skill set at the next level, where the talent level significantly evens out in comparison to the college ranks.
Tomlin also said that Bell was already near the 225-pound mark toward the end of last season, and that he had reported to the team this offseason in similar shape, suggesting that he has shown commitment to a year-round maintenance of his conditioning.
You can see the improvement in game situations where sheer fitness would play a role, such as his increased ability to win the edge and get to the outside, rather than simply running east and west before being chased out of bounds.
He’s clearly been getting to the outside with greater success this year after leading all backs in percentage of rushes between the tackles a year ago.
As I’ve previously written this week, all of this has led to Bell leading the league in yards from scrimmage after three weeks, averaging over 150 yards from scrimmage per game. He has 315 rushing yards, one of only two backs over 300, and has already added an additional 146 yards through the air.
One future Hall of Fame running back has taken notice of what Bell has been doing this year.
Former San Diego Chargers star rusher LaDainian Tomlinson to NFL Total Access yesterday that he would take Bell over any other back in the league right now, explaining that he is a back that can “do it all”.
“He can run inside, he has the speed to turn the corner, he can catch the football, he’s versatile, he’s athletic”, he said. “I love Le’Veon Bell”.
He’s drawn comparisons to Eddie George throughout his career, but perhaps Marshall Faulk is becoming another valid reference point, who, as a back, caught 767 passes in his career for 6875 yards during his 12-year career.
The Hall of Famer averaged about 70 rushing yards and 40 receiving yards per game. That doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable the way Bell is playing right now.