As is more or less taken as a given at this point in his career, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell had himself yet another excellent season in 2016, but one thing that was somewhat missing during the year were the explosive plays. Now he was never, and never will be, one of the fastest players on the field, but it is something that was in his game earlier in his career.
During his breakout 2014 season, following which he was named a first-team All-Pro, for example, Bell recorded eight runs of at least 20 yards, which was the seventh-most in the league, and he also had two runs that went for at least 40 yards. Nobody that season had more than three such carries.
Even in the 2015 season, when he was limited to fewer than six full games, he still ran for eight explosive runs on 113 total attempts, and that included another run of 40 yards or more. It was certainly beginning to seem as though it would be a notable feature of his game.
Yet it sort of disappeared last year, even considering that he only played in 12 games. in 261 carries, he managed just four explosive runs, which ranked tied for the 23rd-most in the league. He had only one run of at least 40 yards, and that came in his first game back off a three-game suspension.
So the question is, was that a statistical anomaly, or is there something that changed in his running style or in the offense that makes him less able to break off long runs? Well, to start off answering that question, we can just turn to the postseason.
In a little over two games’ worth of work, Bell recorded three explosive runs. There were only eight explosive runs recorded during the entirety of the 2016 playoffs, so commanding three of them is a big chunk, although he did have by far the most carries, leading the way with 65, while nobody else had 40.
Still, he if he averaging roughly one explosive play every 20 or so carries, that is certainly a more than acceptable ratio. Based on his 2016 regular season carry totals, that would put him in the ballpark of 13 explosive runs, which would be an excellent body of work for a running back who is not only known for his patient running style that allows defenders to crowd the box, but also a back who is not built for pure speed.
I do think that perhaps it took some time over the course of the regular season for Bell to reestablish what I might characterize as a second-level groove, and we did see improvements in the bigger running plays as the season progressed.
This is one thing that I will be looking to see as we head into the 2017 season. While Bell will presumably not be starting the year on another suspension, he is coming off another groin injury.