Can Le'Veon Bell Be the Man for the Pittsburgh Steelers at Running Back?

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Can Le'Veon Bell Be the Man for the Pittsburgh Steelers at Running Back?
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

There was a time when being a rookie in the NFL meant that you stood on the sideline, waited for your opportunity, and when that time finally came, you made the most of it.

Some people called it the 1990s.

Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Today's NFL is so much more accelerated. The expectation is that a rookie comes in ready to play at a high level, and if they do not produce early, then they must be a bust.

Such is the situation that Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back Le'Veon Bell is facing.

After Bell suffered a lisfranc injury in the preseason, the hopes that everyone had for him deflated like an old party balloon. Some fans are already grumbling that the Steelers need to bench him for veteran running back Jonathan Dwyer. Others have even taken it so far as to say that the Steelers must draft another running back in 2014 to replace Bell.

Before we delve any further into the reasons for Bell's struggles and predict his future, there needs to be some point of reference for his performance. There's no better comparison group than the other top rookie running backs in the NFL.

Rookie Running Backs
Name Team Carries Yards YPC TDs
Eddie Lacy Green Bay Packers 172 696 4.0 5
Zac Stacy St. Louis Rams 129 537 4.2 3
Gio Bernard Cincinnati Bengals 105 464 4.4 4
Andre Ellington Arizona Cardinals 62 391 6.2 2
Le'Veon Bell Pittsburgh Steelers 120 375 3.1 4

ESPN.com

As an overlay to that data, here is how the analytical gurus at Pro Football Focus look at the offensive lines of these five running backs:

Offensive Line Rankings
Team 1st Qtr 2nd Qtr
Arizona Cardinals 27th 32nd
Pittsburgh Steelers 15th 20th
Green Bay Packers 7th 13th
St. Louis Rams 6th 12th
Cincinnati Bengals 1st 3rd

Pro Football Focus

There is no greater factor in the production of a running back than the play of his offensive line. That assumes that that all of the backs are similar in talent, which appears to be a fair assumption here.

What can we glean from this information? While nothing is truly cause/effect, the following inferences can be drawn:

  • The Bengals offensive line does a great job creating holes for Bernard. While I do not deny Bernard's talent, having an elite line blocking for him certainly helps.
  • Ellington has found his niche' in that Cardinals offense in spite of the offensive line play. There was little doubt about Ellington's propensity for the big play while in college and he has carried that forward into the NFL.
  • All of these offensive lines are trending down. Not sure of the specifics of it, but it is fascinating that all of these lines are featuring rookies at running back, but their grades as a unit are slipping.
  • Injuries are scattered all over many of these units and it must be taken into account when looking only at the raw data.

 Nevertheless, what does all this mean for Bell? Looking at his numbers, Bell's yards per carry are the lowest of those compared by nearly a full yard per carry. That is certainly disconcerting. However, removing the outlier that is Andre Ellington, and his tendency to crack off long runs, Bell is working in the worst situation of the remaining rookie backs.

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

It is very premature to even consider that Pittsburgh's pick for Bell was wasted, or that the Steelers shouldn't continue to build around him. Bell is a 6'1", 244-pound bruiser of a back, but he cannot do what guys like Ellington and Gio Bernard can. He can't create his own running lanes and he can't bounce every play to the outside when there's nothing there and turn nothing into something.

The Steelers would do well to consider bringing in a back like Ellington or Bernard to complement his game, however, Bell is the one who needs to carry the load.

 

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However, it all starts with the Steelers offensive line. While the line continues to evolve in pass protection, it is showing signs of regression in the run game. This is forcing a philosophical change in the Steelers' offensive structure which could continue to limit Bell's opportunities for the remainder of the season. The fact is that this line can't run-block, and it probably isn't going to learn to in the next six weeks.

So, in the final analysis, it appears that Bell is doing his best with the limited opportunities he is given. People are kidding themselves if they think a back like Eddie Lacy would be putting up the same numbers he is in Green Bay if he were taking snaps in Pittsburgh.

Bell will be just fine. Steelers fans are notorious for knee-jerk reactions and this backlash at Bell for not having a better rookie season is just the latest in a long line of them.


Unless specified, all stats provided by ESPN.com.

 

 

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