During the offseason, as he was attempting to work out an incredibly lucrative new contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers, running back Le’Veon Bell reportedly relayed information to the NFL Network via Ike Taylor that he believes his pay should reflect his role as more than just a ball-carrier, as a large percentage of his touches come through the air.
That has been no truer than over the course of the past month, during which he has caught 35 passes for 328 yards and two touchdowns. If you wanted to prorate that over the course of a full season, it would translate to 140 receptions for 1312 yards and eight touchdowns.
Now, Bell is not about to catch 140 passes in a season any time soon—literally, it has only happened once in NFL history, and only one true running back has even had a 100-reception season—but it does show the rare ability that he possesses in this area of the game.
The numbers don’t necessarily provide the full scope of that, however. More to the point, he not only catches a lot of passes and puts up numbers, he also genuinely gets used as a wide receiver. In my charting, I have found that the team has lined him up as a wide receiver on 101 snaps so far this season.
A very rough preliminary estimate would calculate that he has been used as a wide receive on nearly 18 percent of the Steelers’ passing plays this season. So how has that worked out?
According to my numbers, he has been targeted 23 times when lined up as a wide receiver. Taking out a two-point conversion attempt, Ben Roethlisberger has completed 17 of 22 passes to Bell as a receiver, with one incompletion being batted down, with an average pass distances of 5.6 yards. The Steelers have gained an average of 5.4 yards on those plays, and that includes last week’s 20-yard touchdown.
But it’s not just about what Bell does when he’s lined up as a wide receiver. It’s about how the offense does as a whole, because when he is flanked out into the slot, or out wide, both of which are frequent—the latter often stacked with Antonio Brown—it influences the defense.
Removing penalties and extra-point attempts, the Steelers have run 91 offensive plays with Bell as a wide receiver, and those plays have produced an average of 6.4 yards, which is not bad at all, especially considering that these are often short-yardage plays. Those numbers also include four touchdown passes.
As you might gather, frequently when Bell lines up along the line of scrimmage, the Steelers run out of an empty set, with whatever tight ends that might be on the field also lined up as receivers. This package has gotten a lot of criticism, and its success has certainly varied, but the numbers have been there, as well.