In Wake of Controversy, Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount Still Key to Steelers

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In Wake of Controversy, Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount Still Key to Steelers
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In the "dress rehearsal" game of the 2014 NFL preseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers' first-team offense looked like a hollowed out version of itself.

Suffering a humiliating 31-21 loss at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles, Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of the gang had major issues with their timing, offensive protections and overall chemistry. Because of that, it took them well into the third quarter to finally put points on the scoreboard, and those came against the Eagles’ second-string defense.

To be fair, there was a shadow of controversy cast over the team leading up to kickoff. The Steelers top two running backs, Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, ran into trouble with the law earlier in the week, per ESPN's Adam Schefter:

Bell and Blount will be charged with marijuana possession following a traffic stop Wednesday afternoon. Ross Township detective Brian Kohlhepp said traffic officer Sean Stafiej pulled over a Camaro operated by Bell around 1:30 p.m. after Stafiej, who was on a motorcycle, noticed a strong odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle. Stafiej found a 20 gram bag of marijuana inside the car. Bell, Blount and a female passenger all claimed ownership of the marijuana according to police.

Though CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora would later tweet that Blount wasn't actually arrested, the damage had already been done.

It's a stunning revelation on so many different levels. For starters, the arrest came just one day before the team's showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles. Secondly, considering all of the hoopla and controversy that's surrounded Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon this offseason, you'd think those two guys would be smarter about putting themselves in that type of situation.

This isn't a debate about marijuana use in the National Football League. No, what this comes down to is poor decision-making.

Bell and Blount aren't just two high-profile names. They are also vital components of this offense.

It’s not much of a secret that the Steelers have to run the ball effectively if they want to reascend the mountain that is the AFC North. According to Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Chris Gazze, the Steelers haven't scored double-digit rushing touchdowns since Todd Haley arrived as offensive coordinator in 2012.

Matt Rourke/Associated Press
LeGarrette Blount ran the ball seven times for 32 yards against the Eagles.

What we saw during the team’s preseason game with the Eagles is that, despite those numbers, Haley is still dedicated to pounding the rock. Between them, Blount and Bell registered 15 carries on the evening for 55 yards rushing, while Roethlisberger threw the ball 24 times.

In spite of their impending legal woes, the two backs aren’t devoid of talent and Haley didn’t shy away from using them throughout the game.

To understand why Bell and Blount are still the key to the Steelers offense, you first have to look back at the past. Checking out what the folks over at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) had to say on the matter, both backs played well last season.

Throwing 289 regular-season snaps on his tires, Blount got positive PFF grades both in running the ball and in pass protection. Bell wasn’t quite as effective from that advanced statistics angle, but he still finished with a higher rushing grade than effective runners like Zac Stacy and Reggie Bush.

Turn on any of the tape from Bell’s rookie campaign, and what you’ll see is a back with good vision and soft hands. The most frequent negative that showed up was a lack of a second gear when Bell tried bursting through the line of scrimmage.

Early on against the Eagles, Bell made a stellar jump cut and hit the hole quickly, picking up seven yards in the process. That kind of running will help him drive up his 3.5 yards-per-carry average from last season.

Running the ball successfully is also the best way to bring back the play-action passing game. Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette broke down just how much the Steelers have gotten away from that aspect of their offense in recent years.

“In 2013, the Steelers used play-action on 11 percent of their passing plays. That was the lowest percentage in the league. The Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks used play action on a league-high 35 percent,” Fittipaldo wrote.

Don Wright/Associated Press
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley wants to improve the Steelers' ground game.

That’s a frightening statistic to look at, and based on what Fittipaldo had to say, Haley agrees. “Haley would like to see the running game take a big step forward this season. If that happens, it will provide more options for a passing game that did well last season in spite of a lethargic running attack.”

You can point to the lack of chemistry between Roethlisberger and everyone on the roster not named Heath Miller or Antonio Brown as a point of emphasis. But in order for the Steelers to find their way back into the playoffs this season, Bell and Blount have to be at their very best.

The entire offense revolves around what those guys can bring to the table and more importantly, how well they can bring it.

Hopefully we'll get to see the entire first-team offense back in action for at least a few snaps during the Steelers final preseason game against the Carolina Panthers. Any chance they get to put a little polish on this offense before their Week 1 showdown with the Browns can only help their cause.

 

All CFB stats and information courtesy of Sports-Reference.com unless noted otherwise. All NFL stats, game scores and information courtesy of ESPN.com unless noted otherwise.

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