Sunday was clearly not a good day for Le’Veon Bell on Sunday in terms of offensive output, but as Dave Bryan indicated yesterday in a film room article, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ fifth-year running back did not have a lot of room to work with in the running game, which was the primary catalyst on his 3.2-yard rushing average over 10 carries.
The statistically poor day did not reside solely in the running game, however, and in fact I think that we saw greater potential evidence of anything resembling rust as a receiver than we did as a runner. Still, I would chalk it up more to a lack of rapport rather than a need to hone skills. He caught only three of six targets, though none were dropped balls.
His first carry of the game came at the end of the first quarter. On a second-and-10 run, the Steelers lined up in a two-tight-end set heavy to the right side. The play was ultimately undone with Xavier Grimble and JuJu Smith-Schuster unable to connect on their reach blocks. While Bell was able to escape two defenders in the backfield, the second-level defense closed in on him, which Vance McDonald unable to scrape off his initial double-team block to pick up Joe Schobert. Cornerback Jamar Taylor already got a piece of him, forcing him to begin to trip.
He saw his first target in the passing game a few plays later, on first and 15. Checking out of the backfield, he collided with the back side of Ramon Foster as the left guard was pushed back. Having difficulty getting out of the backfield cleanly, the running back struggled to turn around in time to field the ball, which was delivered where he should have been, rather than where he was, with Ben Roethlisberger facing pressure.
Later in the same quarter, the Steelers deployed an empty backfield with Bell bunched beneath Antonio Brown at the left-side numbers. It was meant to a quick-hitting release, but he and Roethlisberger were clearly not on the same page. Perhaps Bell was supposed to break for the sideline harder.
That was a second-and-one play, and the Steelers gave him the chance to convert on the subsequent third down. He did not; but he didn’t have much of a chance. Maurkice Pouncey lost off the snap and the right side of the line gave up too much penetration to hope to bounce the run in that direction, so he was lucky just not to lose and yardage.
The second half started fittingly enough, with Roethlisberger misfiring for Bell in the middle of the field, a seemingly simple enough play. Roethlisberger’s reaction suggests that perhaps he was supposed to stay put rather than drag the route toward the sideline.
There’s no doubt that Bell has been subject to unfair criticism based on his stat line from the season opener, but I do think his full body of work, including the passing game, does indicate a need to grow back into the offense. Even one pass that he did catch was bobbled and turned into a one-yard loss.