You might recall in an article that I wrote yesterday recounting Pro Football Focus’ pitch for Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell being the best running back in the game that the author mentioned the running back lining up at wide receiver, either on the outside or in the slot, 29 times over the course of the six games in which he played.
With Bell set to make his 2016 debut tomorrow, I thought it would be a good time to try to set the table for what we might expect in that regard, because while the raw numbers would indicate that he averaged roughly five or so snaps as a wide receiver per game, a closer look at the context of those numbers reveals a clearer answer.
It needs to be pointed out, for starters, that of those 29 snaps lined up as a wide receiver, a full 19 of those snaps came in his first game of the season against the Rams, and 17 of those 19 snaps came prior to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s injury.
Over the course of the next four games, which Roethlisberger missed due to an MCL injury and bone bruise, Bell only saw eight snaps lined up as a wide receiver. Five of those came on the following week, but they abandoned it entirely for the next game. He saw three snaps at wide receiver over the course of the two games that came after.
Roethlisberger returned to the lineup against the Bengals after four games, but that also happened to be the same game in which a knee injury put Bell down for the season. He logged just 23 snaps on offense in that game before the injury occurred early in the second quarter, within the first 20 minutes of the game.
Of those 23 snaps, only 12 were passing plays, and he lined up as a wide receiver for two of them, in both instances in the slot. Coincidentally, his injured occurred on a reception, though it was a pass caught coming out of the backfield. He was not targeted on either play at the line of scrimmage.
If we go back to the Rams game, as a matter of fact, the Steelers had Bell split wide or in the slot on the first three plays of the game. He was spelled for the fourth play, but then checked back in and split back out wide again.
Roethlisberger dropped back to pass 30 times in that game, and Bell was at the line of scrimmage for 17 of them. We may very well realistically see that sort of ratio for Bell tomorrow night, especially when you consider the injury to Eli Rogers and the shaky return of Markus Wheaton.
In all, Bell was targeted eight times as a wide receiver in 2015, catching six of them for 42 yards, though that includes a nine-yard reception negated by an offensive holding penalty. He also lined up as a wide receiver on seven of his 17 preseason passing play snaps as well, catching three passes on three targets for 21 yards.
And in case you were wondering, DeAngelo Williams was also on the field for six of those 29 plays last year, though only one was a carry. Williams and Bell both lined up out wide on one play, resulting in a 10-yard reception to Bell.