As much as the Pittsburgh Steelers’s 16-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals yesterday hurt, essentially torpedoing any realistic chance that they had at repeating as champions of the AFC North, the loss of Le’Veon Bell was far more stinging, not simply for his irreplaceable skill set, but for the human toll that the young man will have to endure.
As Alex Kozora reported yesterday, Bell is believed to have severely torn his MCL in his right knee, in addition to suffering further damage, and is expected to be put on injured reserve as early as today.
Bell injured the same knee against the Bengals last year in the season finale after completing a catch down the field, as the safety went low into his knee. The Steelers looked lost without him in their Wildcard loss, and his rehab took some months.
Even before the game, Bell talked about his knee, and how he believed he would always feel the injury to some degree, in spite of his ability to perform at peak level this year, making sharp cuts that send defenders flying in his wake.
One has to wonder what sort of long-term effects this second injury might have not simply on the quality and longevity of his career, but also the quality of his life after football, which is a risk that all football players accept and sign up for. But that makes it no easier a burden to bear.
His teammates now bear a heavy burden in lifting up their wounded comrades, for indeed Bell will be in good company among the ranks of the wounded, joined by starting linemen Kelvin Beachum and Maurkice Pouncey, among others.
DeAngelo Williams will replace him at running back, who is a fine and capable player who has performed above expectations already this year in his age 32 season, and the Steelers even have depth to consider without Isaiah Pead, who is reportedly in for a visit and possible signing today.
But there will be no way to replicate what Bell brings to the game, who could be argued to be the best football player in the game beyond the quarterback position, the type of player you would build your franchise around.
Should this indeed be it for the 2015 season, Bell will have finished with 559 rushing yards on 113 carries, averaging nearly five yards per carry, to go along with three touchdowns. Though his production took a nosedive having mostly played without Ben Roethlisberger, he still recorded 24 receptions for 136 yards.
With Bell on the field, defenses knew that they were going up against a player who could do virtually anything, including receive the snap. He is an elite runner and a legitimate wide receiver with the ability to run a full route tree, finishing second on the team last year in both receptions and yards with 83 and 854, respectically.
He is a dual threat that you have no choice but to expect, and that allowed the Steelers to manipulate defenses. There simply is no replacing such a uniquely skilled and varied talent, but they will have no choice but to do their best with what they have.
As good as the next man up may be, there would be a drop off from Bell no matter who was behind him. And it would be fair to call Williams among the best number two backs in the league.