Bell's debut as an NFL pro will have to wait, as he suffered a Lisfranc injury in preseason action that will sideline him for six weeks or more, as confirmed by NFL Network's Ian Rapoport:
That lis franc injury of Le'Veon Bell? Should take 6 or so weeks to heal, the team believes. The tentative plan is no surgery.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 21, 2013
The good news is the team believes the injury will heal properly on its own, rather than require surgery. That healing process and suggested timetable mean Steelers fans may not see Bell until after Pittsburgh's Week 5 bye.
If it comes to a worst-case scenario, Bell could be placed on injured reserve with a designation to return, meaning he would not play a down until Week 9.
All of the above was the good news. Now for the bad.
Without Bell leading the way as the starter, Pittsburgh will now be forced to revert to 2012's committee form with Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer leading the way. Newcomer LaRod Stephens-Howling will provide a nice change of pace, but it's an unappealing overall outlook after the coaching staff pursued its every-down player in this year's draft.
Last year, Redman and Dwyer shared time. Redman mustered 410 yards and two scores on 110 attempts, averaging a miserable 3.7 yards per carry. Dwyer saw more opportunities with 156 attempts, which he turned into 623 yards and two touchdowns with a mediocre four yards per carry.
Stephens-Howling himself only saw 111 attempts in Arizona last year in a role similar to what is expected of him in Pittsburgh. He managed just 357 yards and four touchdowns with a 3.2 yards-per-carry average.
Forget statistics for a moment. ProFootballFocus (subscription required), a site which grades every snap from a player's season, graded Dwyer as the No. 35 back in the NFL last year. Stephens-Howling came in at No. 39. The list only graded 51 players.
How big is Le'Veon Bell's injury?
The only Steelers back to grade positively was Redman at No. 21 overall thanks to high marks in receiving and blocking—not actual running, which would explain why he was not the featured back.
There is, of course, something to be said about a player's progression. The problem is, Stephens-Howling and Redman are known commodities entering their fifth seasons. Dwyer is entering his fourth.
The offensive line will also play a major factor in the committee's success, but things have not looked good so far. The Week 2 contest with Washington saw the line give up four sacks, and the Redskins defense held all but one Pittsburgh runner to four yards per carry or less.
Add in injury issues with all three backs failing to appear in 16 games last year and there is plenty of reason to be concerned.
Expect the Steelers to not lean heavily on the committee approach next year. Not to say there is a feature back, because if there was, the team would not have taken Bell in the first place.
Instead, expect offensive coordinator Todd Haley to continue utilizing his effective short passing offense to replace the running game in spirit. That is a solid approach that worked last year before Ben Roethlisberger got banged up, so the success will be determined by the play of the line.
The outlook is bleak, with perhaps the only positive talk emerging from the situation at this time courtesy of Bell himself:
I'll be back quicker than ppl kno it...God doesn't make mistakes! Everything happens for a reason, so… http://t.co/TKN15oh8oN— LeVeon Bell (@L_Bell26) August 21, 2013
That is an encouraging sign. Pittsburgh is going to need the bruising back that rushed for over 1,700 yards in 2012 and scored 12 times on 382 attempts to be on the field for the rushing attack to work.
Until Bell is healthy, Pittsburgh's running game will be miserable and give fans and members of the staff flashbacks to last season.
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