The Pittsburgh Steelers were once defined by their physical running game. That is not the case anymore, as they rank 30th in the league in rushing. But despite the stats, the Steelers have their running back of the future with Le’Veon Bell.
Early in his career, Bell’s performances have not inspired much confidence. In four games, he only has 208 yards, which ranks 47th in the NFL. Among qualified running backs on ESPN.com, Bell ranks 35th with 3.3 yards per carry and his long carry is just 11 yards.
Needless to say, the excitement over Bell’s strong training camp has waned. This was evident when Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (subscription required) blogger Bob Smizik stated that it is too early to evaluate Bell as the long-term answer at running back.
That is fair enough. Bell only has 64 carries in his brief four-game career and has yet to have a 100-yard rushing performance. But that does not mean he hasn’t shown signs of being a very good back in the future.
When the Steelers made Bell their second-round selection back in April, they were looking to add a well-rounded running back who could contribute equally in the ground and passing game.
NFL.com's Chris Wesseling had the following to say about Bell:
A bigger back in his own right at 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, Bell is more of a finesse runner with agility and passing-game skills.
Although Bell's short-area burst and elusiveness have drawn concerns from scouts, NFL.com's Bucky Brooks rated him as the best back in the draft after Bell racked up 1,793 yards and 12 touchdowns for Michigan State as a junior in 2012.
That is very high praise considering the 10-year veteran has eight 1,000 yard rushing seasons and 416 career receptions in his career. The Steelers can only dream that Bell will match that production.
We all got a taste of Bell’s upside during training camp when he clearly established himself as the Steelers' most talented running back almost immediately.
What is Le'Veon Bell's upside as a running back?
Bell had a presence out on the field. Whether it was his unusually tall frame or his patience and vision that he displayed as a rookie, he stood out.
In his first career game in London against the Minnesota Vikings, Bell began to flash some of those skills with a two-touchdown performance. He followed that with a bit of a dud as he gained 34 yards on 16 carries for a putrid 2.1 yards per carry.
I thought he ran very well. I thought the Jets provide some challenges in terms of run defense. They're number two in the league, and they lived up to that. They've got some talented people up front. There weren't many holes.
I thought he did a great job of picking vision and putting the ball where it was supposed to be and running with the type of demeanor that we desire.
But his praise came from more than just his head coach.
Ramon Foster added, per Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, that Bell is “a special back.”
“With growth and time and as the season goes on, he is going to be really good at seeing what he needs to see,” Foster said. “Then you will see what he's all about.”
Time has been limited so far, but Bell has already shown improvement. This was particularly evident against the rival Baltimore Ravens.
The typically stout Baltimore defensive front was no match for the Steelers ground attack, led by Bell, who ran for a career-high 93 yards on 19 carries.
Bell displayed great vision as he picked apart the Ravens defense and used his size and power to run right at the edge defenders to wear them down.
But time and experience won’t do it alone. Bell is going to have to work at his craft if he is going to get better, and he is not short of motivation. Always feeling slighted, Bell is using his recruiting and draft status as a driving force, per ESPN.com.
“I always kept this chip on my shoulder because of that,” Bell said. “I’ve still got it from going in the second round of the draft.”
Bell fell in the draft because while he is a well-rounded back, he does not have elite tools. He is not the fastest or strongest back, but he has enough to get the job done.
He has enough speed to get around the edge, the power to move the pile in short-yardage situations and the feet to make quick cuts to find an opening.
But what separates him from his teammates is his potential as a blocker as well as his soft hands out of the backfield. Bell is terrific in space and leads all running backs on the roster with 13 receptions.
We have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Bell and his potential as a running back. As the weeks go by, his comfort level with the offense will increase and so will his production.
There is plenty of room for him to develop as a running back, but Bell has shown that he can be much more than a complimentary back. Soon enough his pure talent will take over and the Steelers will have no choice but to make him one of the focal points of the offense.
At this point, it is only a matter of time.