The Pittsburgh Steelers offense made major strides in its long-anticipated maturation over the course of last season, and while there were many individual developments that helped to contribute to that end, it seems to me that there is one clear catalyst at the center of the improvements: running back Le’Veon Bell.
Now, it goes without saying that was Bell offers as a running back is something that has been lacking for too often in the Steelers’ backfield in recent years, and his performance last season leading the AFC in rushing was a revelation. As a point of order, he carried the ball for 1361 yards on 290 attempts last season, averaging 4.7 yards per carry while punching eight into the end zone.
But where the difference has really come in the offense’s development has been in having an every-down threat such as Bell emerge as such a complete and dynamic receiving threat. He shattered club receiving records for the running back position last season with 83 receptions and 854 receiving yards, averaging an impressive 10.3 yards per catch.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger shattered his own franchise record last season for single-season passing yards, becoming the first Steelers quarterback to lead the league in that statistic when he threw for 4952 yards.
In the same season in which first-team All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown also shattered his own club record with 1698 receiving yards, Bell’s 854 yards accounted for a full 17 percent of Roethlisberger’s yardage total, which is remarkable in and of itself.
In third-year running back Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers have found their engine that will drive their offense into the future, and while his rushing accomplishments are more than commendable, it’s his service as a wide receiver that has been especially transformative.
At 6’1” and over 220 pounds, Bell is not an easy player to cover, especially given that he often comes out of the backfield, despite the fact that he has an impressive route tree for the position.
We have seen many linebackers and safeties struggle to cover Bell last season with his combination of size, speed, and physicality. He has improved his hands and vision since coming to the pros as well, and the byproduct has been some remarkable statistics.
Consider the fact that Bell caught at least five passes in 12 of 16 games last season, including as many as eight receptions on three separate occasions. Though he only eclipsed the 100-yard mark once, that total came in at 159 yards. He was good for at least 45 receiving yards more than half the time.
As a combined rushing and receiving threat, he produced at least 100 yards of offense on 13 occasions during the 2014 season (and the Steelers were 2-1 in the games in which he was under 100 total yards).
The Steelers quite simply have never had a player like Bell before. There haven’t been many like him, with his potential, in recent years—running backs who have the potential to put up over 1000 yards rushing and receiving, separately, in the same season.
And that is the biggest difference—combined with Roethlisberger’s trust in his receiving abilities—between the offense that was, and the offense that is emerging.