The journey toward the Super Bowl is now well under way with the Pittsburgh Steelers back practicing at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, still informally referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility. With the regular season standing in their way on the path to a Lombardi, there will be questions for them to answer along the way.
We have asked and answered a lot of questions during the preseason and through training camp, but much of the answer-seeking ends in the regular season, and teams simply have to make do with what they have available to them. Still, there will always be questions for us.
You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in the regular season and beyond as they develop, looking for the answers as we evaluate the makeup of the Steelers on their way back to the Super Bowl, after reaching the AFC Championship game last season for the first time in more than half a decade.
Question: Is Le’Veon Bell going to be a smaller focus of the offense than he has been in the past, and if so, why?
Last season, Le’Veon Bell was by far the most-used running back in the league. Not only in terms of the number of touches that he saw in the average game, but also in terms of the number of snaps that he was asked to log.
To put some numbers behind the discussion, he averaged a league-high 21.8 carries per game during the 2016 regular season, with only one other running back, Ezekiel Elliott, seeing 20 or more. David Johnson, with 80 receptions, averaged 23.3 total touches per game, while Bell, with 75 receptions, averaged 28 touches per game.
He also saw action on over 90 percent of the Steelers’ snaps. Johnson was the nearest with somewhere around 82 percent, while Demarco Murray had about 81 percent. On Sunday, Bell played just 43 of 61 snaps, minus one pre-snap penalty. You don’t have to know a lot about math to figure out that that is under 75 percent.
Not only did rookie running back James Conner see eight snaps of his own, the Steelers also took the field nine times with no running back at all. Last season when they ran out of four-receiver sets, they did so minus the tight end, rather than the running back.
It is fair to say that there might be extenuating circumstances to account for his usage and touches being down in the season opener, but there isn’t too compelling of one. For one thing, they just wanted to get Conner some touches.
But out of the nine plays they ran out of the 01 personnel, only one came on third down, and that was a third-and-three play. The majority came on first down, and only one play saw them need more than 10 yards.
One game is a very small sample size. We can’t draw any very informative conclusions based on Sunday’s usage. After all, he only had a few practices, admittedly. But it does seem that they are more willing to rely less upon him this year.