Fox Sports' Jay Glazer reported on Tuesday that rookie Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell will play against the Minnesota Vikings in London on Sunday, marking the first regular-season action he'll see since his preseason foot injury.
The news couldn't have come at a better time. The Steelers are 0-3, thanks primarily to their offense, which has all but collapsed under the weight of having too few playmakers and a nearly nonexistent run game. Through three weeks, Pittsburgh is averaging just 51.7 rushing yards per game behind Felix Jones, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman and this inability to run has doomed the team's passing game as a result.
Bell's return means that the Steelers finally have on the field the player they pegged to be their future at the running back position. Granted, Bell won't be an every-down back this week—his injury is one that can be reaggravated easily, and there's little reason to take a major risk—but at least it's having another key player on the field who might help lift a slumping offense.
Bell played only five preseason snaps before injuring his foot. He rushed four times for nine yards, a 2.3 yards-per-rush average. The sample size is way too small to determine if he'll improve the Steelers' ground attack in Week 4 or for the rest of the season, but it stands to reason that the rookie will at least bring another dimension to the run game.
After all, that is why they drafted him in the second round this year.
The important thing to consider about Bell's success this week and going forward is the offensive line. Presently, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has only guard David DeCastro with a positive grade as a run-blocker, while giving poor grades to Pittsburgh's two tackles, Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams.
Considering the Steelers chose to move to an outside-zone-blocking scheme when they hired Jack Bicknell Jr. to coach their offensive line—done partially because this scheme better suited Bell's running style—poor run-blocking by the tackles is a major problem. Bell might be an upgrade over the backs the Steelers have been using, but it's possible he won't see offer any improvement as long as the line is struggling.
Bell's ability to pass protect will also weigh heavily on how much the Steelers use him. It was the biggest sticking point for him over the summer, as pass protection wasn't something he was called upon to do very often at Michigan State. Right now, Jones has been the best pass-protecting running back for the Steelers, allowing only one total pressure.
It will be interesting to see how often Bell is on the field on passing downs, considering how well Jones has handled pass-blocking and blitz-pickup responsibilities.
At least Bell is a true threat to opposing defenses, which will have to expend more resources and effort to keep him bottled up, and that could result in favorable passing matchups in coverage. If opponents feel the need to keep eight or nine men in the box to stop Bell, Pittsburgh might improve their passing game.
Then, the question will be about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's accuracy (he threw two interceptions in the team's loss to the Chicago Bears and has four picks on the season) and the playmaking abilities of Roethlisberger's receiving targets. It helps, too, that tight end Heath Miller is back on the field—albeit on a snap count—giving Roethlisberger someone reliable to throw to in short-yardage situations.
Bell's return to the field gives the Steelers some added hope. This is a player the team drafted to make a major contribution as a rookie, and even the psychological impact of him being able to play this week will be important for a team in turmoil. The simple fact that the back they drafted to turn the run game around will finally play matters just as much as how how productive he is this week.
A running back alone is not going to fix everything that ails Pittsburgh's offense, however.
Sure, if Bell plays well against the Vikings and for the rest of the season, it will have a positive ripple effect on the rest of the offense. But things like Roethlisberger throwing interceptions or the line not blocking well have nothing to do will have little to do with the rookie back.
If those problems persist, the offense will still be in bad shape. Bell is not a magic wand.
However, the Steelers finally get back a player they had planned to be a centerpiece of their offense. They become healthier, and the run game is boosted by someone about whom they are actually enthusiastic.
Bell runs well—though he's not a shifty back, he's got good speed and he's fearless—and as long as he pass protects reasonably well, he could see a heavy workload in the near future. He's also good at catching passes and gives Roethlisberger another much-needed receiving option. If Bell stays healthy, the Steelers have a workhorse rusher, even if he doesn't get that many touches in his first ever NFL game.
Bell won't fix all of Pittsburgh's problems on offense, but his appearance should at least help minimize one of them.
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