With only three weeks left in the regular season, the 7-5 Pittsburgh Steelers have a true opportunity to make a push for the AFC North title, given running back Le’Veon Bell's production and versatility.
The tape on Bell, a complete player, is impressive when one studies his patience with the ball, the smooth footwork at the point of attack and the quick, lateral change-of-direction speed that allows him to find running lanes.
Today, let’s break down the film on Bell and discuss why his ability in both the run and pass game can fuel a late-season push for the Steelers.
Counter OF: Steelers’ No. 1 Power Scheme
The Counter OF is one of the core power schemes in the NFL, with the back-side guard kicking out the primary support and the H-back (or fullback) pulling up through the hole. The goal is to block down on the edge and bring the big boys around to clear out a running lane for the back.
In Pittsburgh, the Counter OF scheme is the top call under offensive coordinator Todd Haley when the Steelers want to play physical football up front and cater to Bell's ability.
Here’s a static, pre-snap look of the Steelers’ Counter OF scheme from the All-22 coaches film with Tank/22 personnel (1WR-2TE-2RB) on the field in a "big wing" alignment (wing to the closed/strong side of the formation).
The Steelers will block down on the edge and work to the second level while pulling back-side guard David DeCastro and tight end Heath Miller (H-back in this formation) to the play side.
This scheme looks good when we draw it up on the chalkboard or show it here before the snap. However, that doesn’t take into account Bell's skill set to find that running lane while allowing his blocks to develop.
Here’s how the scheme played out versus the Cincinnati Bengals this past Sunday, with Bell producing an explosive gain:
This is the patience I was talking about with Bell as he waits for the blocks to develop, with cornerback Adam Jones giving ground versus DeCastro (have to set the edge there) and Miller pulling up through the hole to fit on the safety.
Plus, look at Bell's footwork as he makes a quick jump cut and then accelerates with speed through the hole to take this ball into the open field. That also shows us the vision Bell plays with.
We can look at Bell’s first (or second) touchdown versus the Bengals on this same scheme or go back to the win over the Titans in Week 11 when the Steelers leaned on the Counter OF to close out the win in the four-minute drill.
Pittsburgh won up front, which allowed Bell to pick his running lane while dropping his pad level on contact to finish with power.
The Steelers run the Counter OF better than any team in the league when they pull both DeCastro and Miller. Those are athletic, physical blockers who can win at the point of attack.
However, it’s Bell's overall skill set that allows the Steelers to consistently produce in a basic power scheme.
The Zone Running Game
Given the production from Bell this Sunday in the Counter OF scheme, it’s easy to forget about what he can do with base zone blocking up front. But this is another way for Haley to feature his No. 1 guy out of one- and two-back sets.
In the zone-blocking scheme, the offensive line utilizes a “zone step” (step play side). This allows the offense to run the zone (or stretch) scheme versus multiple fronts while creating opportunities for the running back to press the formation's edge or look for cutback lanes.
Here’s an example from the Steelers’ win over the Titans in a one-back pistol alignment that creates a soft run front (seven-man box) with Posse/11 personnel on the field (3WR-1TE-1RB).
Again, look at Bell's patience to press the formation's edge before he finds a lane to push the ball vertically up the field through the defense's second level.
This is the same scheme you will see from the Cowboys and DeMarco Murray, as it allows the running back (especially versus nickel fronts) to play off the zone blocking and read the second-level pursuit before making a cut to get up the field.
The Steelers will also run the split-zone scheme that creates a natural cutback lane with the tight end off the ball (or H-back) coming across the formation on an “arc” block to kick out the edge support.
Take a look as Bell identifies the front-side pursuit against the Titans and quickly cuts the ball back inside of the kick-out block.
The point here? Bell can produce in the base power schemes with Tank/22 personnel on the field when the Steelers want to hit people in the mouth and close out games or fill up the box score running the ball behind a zone-blocking front.
That gives Haley and the Steelers options in the game plan based on down and distance or personnel.
One-on-One Matchups in the Passing Game
Bell can also produce as a receiver in the screen game or when exposing a one-on-one matchup at the second level on option routes.
But the Steelers adding Bell to the mix on the shoot/slip screen and the underneath option routes creates even more opportunities for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to move the ball.
Check out Bell on the option route in the red zone versus Bengals linebacker Emmanuel Lamur:
He displays sweet footwork here at the top of the route to set up Lamur while forcing the linebacker onto his heels in the open field.
That’s an example of winning a one-on-one matchup in open space while providing Roethlisberger with an underneath read that produces points.
This is another example versus the Saints on the option with Bell once again matched up on a linebacker:
It's the same result, as Bell forces the linebacker in coverage to stop his feet in the open field. That allows Bell to use his quickness/burst to generate separation from the defender.
The Steelers have removed Bell from the formation's core in route combinations, and you will also find examples on the tape with Bell running the “rail” route (quick, vertical release versus pressure) to give Roethlisberger a primary “hot” read.
The versatility Bell brings to the field as a receiver has allowed the Steelers running back to produce over 200-plus total yards for three straight weeks.
Is Bell the Top Running Back in the Game This Season?
Murray is going to lead most of the discussions about the best player at the position this year because he has the numbers to back it up. He is putting together a special season in Dallas.
However, when breaking down Bell's complete skill set and versatility, we have to put him in the mix. Along with Matt Forte of the Chicago Bears and LeSean McCoy of the Philadelphia Eagles, Bell has that unique ability to challenge defenses consistently in both the run and pass game.
And when I look at the Steelers' remaining schedule (at Atlanta, vs. Kansas City, vs. Cincinnati), it's clear that Bell’s role as the catalyst for the Pittsburgh offense is a major key to making a playoff push.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.