The 2014 season saw the Pittsburgh Steelers on the rise, finishing with an 11-5 record and a division title following two straight seasons of missing the playoffs with 8-8 records. They finished off the regular season with four straight victories, but suffered a disappointing Wildcard round loss against the Ravens without their star running back.
Nobody is saying that the Steelers, however, are a finished product. Not even the Super Bowl champion is a finished product after a season concludes, because every team undergoes a series of changes throughout the offseason via free agency, retirement, and the draft, in addition to a myriad of other factors.
Pittsburgh is certainly no different, of course, and they are expected to see a number of new faces in the starting lineup for the third straight season. One of the priorities that they will have staring them in the face when the 2015 regular season starts is finding a way to navigate through the first two games of the season without the services of their All-Pro running back, Le’Veon Bell.
That Bell will be suspended for two games is already more or less established as fact, which gives the Steelers ample time to prepare for the scenario. But it is critical that they prepare adequately, because we have seen how poorly the offense has performed during the four games in which he was unable to play during his first two seasons, including last year’s playoff loss.
This is such a high priority because the Steelers have shown recently an inability to dig themselves out of the holes they’ve dug themselves. Considering the AFC North was among the toughest divisions in the game in 2014, boasting three playoff teams, if the Steelers end up losing their first two games because their offense crumbles without the man who accounted for over 2200 yards and 11 touchdowns isn’t there, they may find themselves in trouble for the rest of the season just trying to catch up.
It is for that reason that finding an adequate alternative to Bell for the first two games is such a priority as the Steelers advance in their offseason planning. Whether they choose to add another running back via free agency or the draft—or perhaps both—they will have to find a way to produce on the ground in order to be competitive in those first two games.
Should they opt for a rookie running back to start the season, they will need to get him up to speed in order to be that starter in a role that he understands will be temporary. Even though Bell was locked in as a starter, his rookie season was but a glimmer of what he would become, raising his yards per carry average from 3.5 to 4.7 from year one to year two.
Perhaps the most important element of this conversation is considering how ubiquitous Bell became in the receiving game, netting 83 receptions—second on the team—in 2014. How important receiving ability is for his replacement in these games is something the team will need to consider as they determine how essential running back receiving is to the success of their offensive strategy.