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Why Losing Le’Veon Bell Could Hurt Ben Roethlisberger’s Longevity

First, let’s make one thing clear that I think has been lost in all of the Le’Veon Bell craziness. Bell isn’t leaving immediately. He’s still here for all of 2018 and the Pittsburgh Steelers have a good chance to win a Super Bowl, in part thanks to his help.

But when he leaves after the year ends, Ben Roethlisberger will still be here. His goal, the teams goal, my goal, is for Roethlisberger to play as long as possible. At least two more years following 2018 is Roethlisberger’s own stated plan with the potential to go for another four.

That’s all predicated on Roethlisberger staying healthy. The fact he’s even playing now is because the team found a way to protect him. Ben’s game evolved to someone who wreaks more havoc within the pocket than outside of it, exposing him to fewer blows, and the team rebuilt their offensive line while hiring the game’s best coach for it.

Roethlisberger should probably send a fruit basket Bell’s way too. He’s never had a back quite like Bell. Nor the trust. Especially in a post Heath Miller world, Bell has been THE security blanket for Roethlisberger when the rush is on. There’s total trust in him to check it down, let him make a play in space. In the past, Roethlisberger would hold onto the football, try to do too much, and that meant more hits, more sacks.

That’s always been my belief at least. But with the news of no deal being reached, I wanted to look at it empirically. Do the numbers hold up?

So for the last three seasons, I’ve gone through the charting done by the immaculate Matthew Marczi of the Steelers’ offense. How often does the team get sacked when Bell is on the field compared to when he’s off it? That’s what I wanted to find out.

Here’s the results.

2015-2017 Sacks Dropbacks Sack %
With Bell 44 1187 3.7%
Without Bell 35 749 4.7%

Or put it like this. If you extrapolate the “without Bell” dropbacks to the number with him, the Steelers would’ve allowed 55 sacks, 11 more than they did with Bell out there.

The results are even more striking if you look at the last two years. Sack-percentage with and without him.

With Bell: 3%
Without Bell: 5.5%

So we’re seeing the sack percentage nearly double without Bell on the field. That’s a HUGE difference and I think there’s real causation, not just correlation. Here’s just one example but I think it sums it up. Last year, Week 14 against Baltimore.

James Conner is on a check/release out of the backfield. He’s a little too hesitant about it, releasing later than he probably should, but he’s open underneath with nothing working downfield.

But Roethlisberger doesn’t look his way, keeping his eyes downfield. He takes the sack.

If that’s Bell, I promise Roethlisberger is throwing it his way. Granted, this was a 3rd and 6, but Bell tied for 3rd on the Steelers in third down catches (17). That trust just isn’t there with anyone not named Bell. So Roethlisberger holds the ball, tried to leave the pocket like old Ben, and goes down.

It’s not that trust can’t be built with another back, it can, but that takes time and frankly, doesn’t happen with everyone. And time isn’t really on Roethlisberger’s, or the Steelers’, side right now.

That’s not to say without Bell, Roethlisberger is going back to the mid-2000s of getting sacked 40+ times. The line is still good, he has a hand-picked OC, he’s changed his playing style dramatically. But Bell is a key component of that too and just in the way the offense as a whole is worse off without him, so is Roethlisberger. With Bell gone, it’s an overlooked aspect of the offense that will take a figurative hit. And for Ben, some literal ones.

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