While the Pittsburgh Steelers may have accomplished their primary goal of the regular season, which was to be crowned champions of the AFC North—and did so in convincing fashion with a four-game win streak, including two victories over the Cincinnati Bengals — there’s one critical box they were not able to check off last night: escaping the regular season healthy in key positions.
Of course, we all saw the hit that running back Le’Veon Bell took to his knee in the third quarter on a hit by Bengals safety Reggie Nelson. It’s a mercy that his cleat gave way rather than stuck into the grass, or his leg could have bent the wrong way in ugly fashion.
The preliminary evaluation seems to be that Bell was lucky, suffering a hyperextended knee while avoiding any structural damage, but those diagnoses can easily change in a day or two. The Steelers also have a short week, playing on Sunday night.
Bell’s availability for the Steelers’ first round playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens is very much in question less than 12 hours after having locked up the team’s first home playoff game in four seasons, and that would certainly pose a problem.
Bell has taken nearly every handoff since the Steelers released LeGarrette Blount several weeks ago, and he has become the engine through which the offense has been driven. He added another 100 yards from scrimmage last night leading up to his injury, including 80 receiving yards.
Behind him are only two rookies: the slight Dri Archer, who proved once again that he is a liability in pass protection and helped influence a Ben Roethlisberger interception; and Josh Harris, an undrafted free agent who had four career carries coming into last night’s game, adding five more for seven yards. He had a long run of nearly 60 yards taken off the board due to a holding penalty as well.
Needless to say, taking Bell out of the offense will certainly radically change the Steelers’ offensive game plan and vision. After all, he was a key asset in every facet of the game, from running, to receiving, to blocking in pass protection.
Bell was the Steelers’ second-leading receiver, finishing with 83 receptions for 854 yards and three touchdowns. Those numbers ranked second, second, and third on the team in those categories on an offense that boasted five different players gaining at least 500 yards through the air.
The Steelers will have to learn to adapt without Bell, especially if he isn’t able to go next week, but even if he does play, he can expect to be limited, even if it is a limitation imposed upon him by the team.
The advantage, of course, is the fact that their first round opponent is the Ravens, whose secondary has been riddled with injuries all season. And they just happen to have Pro Bowlers at the quarterback and wide receiver positions. Saturday may well be a day to air it out—provided, of course, that Roethlisberger has the stomach for it.