Late last week, I published an article discussing Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell and what he brings to the field with respect to his unique skill set as a pass catcher from the tailback position, and how that combined ability with his elite rushing skills—not to mention his fine work in pass protection—do entitle him to consider the top dollar at his position, at least in the post-inflation running back market.
Other factors aside, and ones not to be dismissed, in particular his previous suspension and multiple knee injuries, which, whether his fault or no, impact his body and thus his long-term viability, Bell’s ability to be such a versatile weapon in the receiving game gives the Steelers an edge that should not go overlooked.
Unfortunately, the team had little opportunity to actually take advantage of this fact last season due to the fact that Bell’s five and a half games spent healthy on the field hardly coincided with the time that Ben Roethlisberger spent on the field healthy during the first half of the season, a realization that I came upon when attempting to answer a question posed to me in the comments section of the aforementioned article.
Much has been made about the fact that Bell is not simply a pass-catching running back, but rather a football player who is also capable of executing the assignments of a wide receiver proper, and his 6’1”, 215-plus-pound frame combined with his mature route-running skills and soft hands see to the truth of that.
But the charting statistics certainly bear out the fact that the Steelers were not comfortable with taking Bell out of the backfield after Roethlisberger went down, when Mike Vick or Landry Jones were in the backfield.
In the first game of the season, before Roethlisberger went down injured in the second half, Bell lined up as a wide receiver 17 times while the team’s franchise quarterback was still in the game. Following that injury, he only lined up at wide receiver 12 more times over his final five-plus games, including two more in the Rams game after Vick took over.
I find this statistic quite interesting because it gives an indication of how the Steelers’ offensive strategy likely was forced to adapt without Roethlisberger. Indications from the Rams game suggest heavily that Bell was intended to be used quite a bit split out wide—though admittedly the suspension of Martavis Bryant also played a role in that.
Bell, by the way, caught four of five targets from the wide receiver position for 46 yards, drew a defensive holding penalty, and had another nine-yard reception negated by an offensive hold by the left tackle.
The extent to which he is used split outside or in the slot next season (he lined up outside or as the sole receiver to a side 11 times) will be something to watch for, considering that we did not have the opportunity to watch that element of the game plan properly unfold last year.