Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the worst rushing offense performances in years, averaging a mere 96.1 yards per game running the ball. Their leading rusher was Jonathan Dwyer, who ended the year with 623 yards and just two scores—31 running backs and quarterbacks had more yards than him while dozens more outscored him.
Therefore, it was unsurprising that the Steelers used a draft pick to take a dynamic running back, Le'Veon Bell, whom they selected in the second round. The shifty Bell was the exact component the Steelers run game lacked and, in concert with their offensive line's switch to a zone-blocking scheme, had all the makings of being able to single-handedly help Pittsburgh out of the basement in terms of rushing yards and scores.
Once Bell finally made his preseason debut in the Steelers' Week 2 matchup against the Washington Redskins after healing from slight knee discomfort, the hope was that a newer, better rushing offense was right around the corner. Bell was named the starter and Pittsburgh's first offensive possession featured more handoffs to the rookie than pass attempts.
However, after just four carries netting nine yards, Bell limped off the field with an apparent foot injury. Not long after the dreaded word started spreading—Lisfranc.
The #Steelers believe rookie Le'Veon Bell has a lis franc injury, which could keep him out for some time. Team is pretty frustrated.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 21, 2013
A Lisfranc fracture involves the bones in the middle of the foot and the dislocation of the joints around them and, especially when requiring surgery, is a season-ending diagnosis. Even a Lisfranc sprain—characterized by an injury to the area but no broken bones or joint dislocations—carries with it an uncertain timetable for return. It could be anywhere between six weeks to much longer—10 or even 12.
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Bell's Lisfranc injury should sideline him for six weeks. Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin elaborated on the diagnosis on Thursday, per Scott Brown of ESPN, saying that Bell won't need surgery and has already responded well to treatment in just the past 48 to 72 hours.
Bell does not need surgery and Tomlin says team is encouraged by developments over the "last 48 to 72 hours."— Scott Brown (@ScottBrown_ESPN) August 22, 2013
Though Bell is in a walking boot and using crutches, he can put pressure on the foot, which is something he couldn't do in the days after suffering the injury. The swelling has also decreased dramatically.
Of course, Bell won't be playing in the Steelers' preseason Week 3 contest against the Kansas City Chiefs. Tomlin did not elaborate on when he expects Bell back on the field, but based on Schefter's claim of six weeks, combined with the fact that Pittsburgh tight end Matt Spaeth has a similar injury that is supposed to have him shelved for eight to 10 weeks, the earliest we can reasonably expect Bell's return is Week 6 against the New York Jets, following its Week 5 bye.
This is not ideal, but it is at least not the worst-case scenario of season-ending surgery. The Steelers aren't yet relegated to another season behind Dwyer and Isaac Redman, and though they do have to lean on them for at least part of the year, it's not necessarily the worst thing that could happen.
Likely owing to seeing the Steelers draft Bell and let longtime starter Rashard Mendenhall leave in free agency, both Redman and Dwyer lost weight in the offseason to be more dynamic overall running backs—they saw the "we're moving on" writing on the wall. While weight loss alone doesn't make a running back better, we've already seen the impact it's made on Dwyer, especially.
While Redman got the start in the first preseason game, he played only two snaps; though Bell got the start in the second, his early injury left him with just five snaps and four rushes.
Do you think the Steelers run game will be okay while Bell is out?
The rest of the major lifting with the first team was taken on by Dwyer, who has had 20 rushes for 83 yards and four receptions for 11 yards in his 53 total snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). All of this, by the way, has taken place behind an offensive line that is still trying to find its footing, both literally and figuratively.
An in-shape, more motivated duo of Redman and Dwyer could certainly help the Steelers reverse their fortunes in the run game this year while Bell continues to rehabilitate his injured foot. If Bell can return midseason, that actually provides Pittsburgh with a fresh set of legs during a crucial time.
The Steelers aren't in great shape with Bell's injury, but things could be considerably worse. Bell's season isn't over and Pittsburgh's run game isn't doomed to another year of disappointingly low production. A silver lining to this cloud does exist, and coach Tomlin confirmed it on Thursday.