Steelers' Bell better be made of iron
March 15, 2014
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Glass half empty: The Steelers tied for 27th in the NFL in rushing yards in 2013, the second-lowest total in franchise history. Only four teams managed fewer rushing yards.
Glass half full: Three of their best running performances came in the final three games of the season.
Half empty: They have just one halfback on their roster under contract beyond March 11 who has ever gained a yard with them.
Half full: That halfback is Le'Veon Bell, who displayed the kind of ability later in the season that had prompted them to draft him in the second round last year.
So, can the Steelers count on the kind of ground game club president Art Rooney II long has wished for them? Or will it continue to be something they cannot rely on in 2014? Whether they see that glass as half full or half empty, they might have to plunk a few Alka-Seltzer tablets in it for relief before it gets back to where it was just two years ago.
Yes, back in the good old days of Rashard Mendenhall and Bruce Arians, when the running game was still competent enough to rank 14th in the league. It slipped to 26th in 2012 and then near bottomed-out last season when they collectively averaged 3.5 yards per carry and gained just 1,383 yards, or about 300 below their team record for one player.
There are reasons and excuses, good ones too. Bell, ticketed to be their horse, opened the season with a sprained foot. He did not play in the first three games and it took him awhile to get his groove on. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the season with an ACL injury on the first series of the opener. Halfback LaRod Stephens-Howling left the opener with an ACL injury and went on injured reserve. Mike Adams could not handle left tackle and was benched as a starter. Other injuries to linemen followed.
There also were some strange personnel maneuverings. Jonathan Dwyer, who signed a $1.5 million one-year contract as a restricted free agent, was released before the start of the season, then re-signed after the injury to Stephens-Howling. Dwyer became their second-leading rusher. Isaac Redman, who also signed a $1.5 million RFA contract, started the season in place of Bell. He later said he lied to doctors about a concussion he had in the second game and he was quickly released. Veteran Felix Jones, acquired in a trade with Philadelphia in August, was No. 2 for a time. He is a UFA and won't be back.
Oh, and that outside zone run-blocking scheme new line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. introduced in the spring and summer and was to pave the way for more rushing yards? It was abandoned after Pouncey's injury and Bicknell was fired after the season.
So, what the Steelers are banking on to improve from the fifth-worst (tied) running team in the NFL are better blocking in the line under new coach Mike Munchak and Bell.
At the moment, they have nothing else. They were so concerned about their ground game a year ago that they gave both Dwyer and Redman those $1.5 million tenders, drafted Bell and signed Steephens-Howling as a free agent. Only Bell remains under contract past March 11.
Dwyer reunited with Arians when he signed Wednesday with the Arizona Cardinals. Perhaps they will re-sign Stephens-Howling. They will have to sign someone or draft someone, either that or pray Bell is an iron man, which he was at Michigan State, where he carried 671 times for 3,346 yards.
After overcoming a knee bruise and that sprained foot from the preseason, Bell would lead the Steelers with 860 yards rushing. He scored eight touchdowns and had a 3.5-yard average, although he averaged more than 4 yards in four of his final five games.
What also excites the coaches about Bell is his ability as a receiver. He caught 45 passes last season for 399 yards. Those are more receptions than any Steelers back since fullback John L. Williams led them in 1994 with 51.
Despite missing the first three games, Bell's 1,259 combined yards from scrimmage (runs and receptions) were the most by any rookie running back in franchise history, surpassing Franco Harris' 1,235 in 1972.
So the Steelers have their Bell cow. What they do not have is depth, quality or otherwise (Alvester Alexander and Tauren Poole are on the roster). They also have fullback Will Johnson, who was not used much last season, did not have a carry and caught eight passes.
The Steelers virtually traded running backs coaches with the Minnesota Vikings. They let Kirby Wilson out of his contract so he could coach the Vikings backs, and then signed Minnesota's backfield coach James Saxon to replace the coach who replaced him.
Provided the linemen stay healthy - along with Bell - the Steelers should block and run the ball better in 2014 than they did in 2013. They will find the backups and supplementary players, but Bell is their Franco Harris and he will be a workhorse, as a runner and receiver.
Plus, they really have nowhere to go but up on the ground.
POSITION AT A GLANCE I COACH: JAMES SAXON
Strengths: After a slow start, Le'Veon Bell proved to be a good runner and a versatile back who is a threat in the receiving game. He should only get better in his second season.
Weakness: There is absolutely no depth. There is not a halfback after Bell under contract who has done anything at the position. They need to add three more backs through the draft or free agency.
Needs: A true backup for Bell in case of injury and a quick back that coordinator Todd Haley likes to use.
Overview: The running game has fallen off drastically the past two seasons and, while Bell gives them some optimism to improve, they will have to commit to it more for that to happen.