With just 49 rushing yards on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, second-year Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell will be able to provide the team with something that it hasn’t had over the last few seasons: a 1000-yard rusher.
As a matter of fact, one would have to go back to the 2010 season, the last time the Steelers have advanced past the opening round of the playoffs, to discover the last 1000-yard rusher in Pittsburgh.
The three-year drought is the longest since the Steelers also went three straight seasons without a 1000-yard rusher from 2002 to 2004, but those years reflected much better running than that would indicate.
In 2004, for example, Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley split the load, with Bettis rushing for 941 yards on his own and Staley adding another 830 to the mix.
The Steelers have not run the ball nearly so well in recent years. In 2011, Rashard Mendenhall was having a fine season until he tore his ACL in the penultimate game of the season. He rushed for 928 yards on 228 carries for a little over four yards per carry. The Steelers also found minor success with their reserves, with Isaac Redman chief among them with 479 yards on 110 carries.
The 2012 season was substantially worse. Jonathan Dwyer led the team in rushing with just 623 yards, just barely averaging four yards per carry on 156 rushes. Redman chipped in 410 yards on 3.7 yards per carry, while the injured, and later demoted, Mendenhall had just 182 yards.
It was obvious then that the Steelers could not move on with Mendenhall, nor Dwyer, nor Redman, as the lead tailback, so they turned to the draft, and used a second-round pick on Bell, who 24 games into his career has certainly lived up to the billing. But that doesn’t mean he was able to hit the ground running.
He began his rookie season by missing the first three games with an injury, and he finished the year averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. That’s quite a low figure, yet those who watched him play nevertheless identified and understood his talent.
It also helped that he found greater success later in the season as the yards per carry slowly climbed. His first 100-yard game came in the second to last game of the season, and he averaged over four yards per carry in four of his last five games.
He picked up where he left off and then some this year, having slimmed down to increase his quickness. His 951 rushing yards leaves him second in the league in rushing through 11 games, averaging 86 yards on the ground per game.
Despite dividing his time between the ground game and the passing game, he has three 100-yard games on the year, and is coming off his first career 200-yard game, the fifth in franchise history.
More impressively, he has been averaging nearly five yards per carry while doing so. It seemed that the running game had taken a bit of a dip lately, but the table appears set for this next game to break the Steelers’ 1000-yard rusher drought against a defense that ranks 23rd in the league in rushing.