If Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell picks up where he left off at the end of the 2013 season, he'll be the engine of a powerful offense in 2014.
A realistic goal for Bell in 2014-15 would be to match the contributions Rashard Mendenhall made before 2012.
That might not seem like a lofty standard because of the acrimonious way Mendenhall's career ended in Pittsburgh. But the Steelers haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Mendenhall put together back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2009 and 2010.
The Steelers haven't had a legitimate featured back since Mendenhall tore his ACL in the 2011 regular-season finale, and that's coincided with their two-year playoff absence.
Bell showed toward the end of his rookie season that he can provide what Mendenhall did. When he reaches that level, he can set his sights higher.
After missing the first three games of the season with a foot sprain, Bell ran for 860 yards in 13 games. He averaged just 3.5 yards per carry but ran for better than four yards a carry in four of the last five games.
|Rushing Attempts||Rushing Yards||Yards Per Carry||Rushing Touchdowns|
|At Green Bay||26||124||4.8||1|
Bell ran for the first 100-yard game of his career and the first 100-yard performance by any Steelers runner in nearly a season and a half in the Steelers' 38-31 win at Green Bay in Week 16. Bell gained 124 yards on 26 carries with a touchdown in that game.
As if Steelers fans needed to be reminded of a running back fumbling in a big game against the Packers, Bell coughed it up for the first time in his career at Lambeau Field.
Unlike Mendenhall in Super Bowl XLV, however, Bell got another chance. On his next carry, he ran for 25 yards on the first play of an eventual touchdown drive that gave the Steelers the lead late in the third quarter.
The competitiveness Bell displayed in immediately making up for his mistake shows that he has more passion than, say, a running back who doesn't even show up for a game in which he isn't activated.
Bell also proved to be difficult to tackle. Of his 860 yards, 516 came after contact. That tied him with Maurice Jones-Drew for 14th in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Bell also was 16th among NFL running backs with 45 receptions, although he was fourth with seven dropped passes. Bell's 45 catches were the most by a Steelers running back since John L. Williams caught 51 in 1994. Mendenhall never caught more than 25 passes in a season, according to Pro Football Reference, and Bell's 1,259 yards from scrimmage broke Franco Harris' franchise record for rookies.
If Bell can stay healthy in 2014, he can give the Steelers their first 1,000-yard season since 2010. If he can work on his hands and his blocking (PFF ranked him as the league's 12th-worst blocking running back), he can become a multi-faceted weapon.
Ben Roethlisberger threw for 16 touchdowns and five interceptions in the second half of the 2013 season, and he's finally playing behind an offensive line that can protect him. He was sacked just seven times in the last seven games. Antonio Brown caught 110 passes for 1,499 yards, both second in the NFL. The Steelers offense scored at least 20 points in nine straight games for the first time since 2002, according to Pro Football Reference.
This is an offense on the rise. By forcing opposing defenses to respect both the pass and the run, Bell can help the unit become a feared offense.