In Big Ben's Absence, Le'Veon Bell Can Still Carry Steelers' Super Bowl Hopes

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystOctober 1, 2015

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 28:  Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates after picking up a first down during the second quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field on December 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Save the Pittsburgh Steelers, Le'Veon Bell. You're their only hope. 

While that might be a bit of an overstatement, the Steelers running back will now take over as the focal point of the team after Ben Roethlisberger's unfortunate injury. 

Roethlisberger suffered an MCL sprain and bone bruise after being hit low by St. Louis Rams safety Mark Barron during Sunday's contest. The injury requires at least four-to-six weeks of recovery time.  

With Big Ben in the lineup, the Steelers owned a top-five offense and the league's third-best passing offense. However, his absence doesn't mean that the season is over.

If history taught the Steelers faithful anything during previous injuries to their franchise quarterback, there is plenty of football still to be played, as the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Mark Kaboly noted: 

In order to experience similar success this season, Bell must be the key ingredient to the Steelers' plans, both on offense and defense. 

Offensively, the plan should be simple with Michael Vick now at quarterback: Hand the ball to Bell. 

Last season, the Michigan State product finished second in the NFL with 1,391 rushing yards. He is an elite running back who carried the ball 290 times. His load should now increase due to inevitable changes in the backfield. 

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Prior to Roethlisberger's injury, head coach Mike Tomlin was already trying to figure out ways he could use Bell and DeAngelo Williams. 

Despite Williams' tremendous start to the season with 204 rushing yards in two games, the Steelers coaching staff clearly prefers to use Bell as much as possible. 

"We will figure that out as we go," Tomlin said last week, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette. "However, if Bell is available, we will use him."

Tomlin remained true to his word once the third-year back returned to the lineup after serving a two-game suspension due to a violation of the banned substance list. Upon his return, Bell carried the ball 19 times. Williams, on the other hand, was given one carry. 

Bell and Williams form a formidable duo, but there is absolutely no secret as to which of the two is going to get the lion's share of the work. 

This will become vitally important as the Steelers move forward with Vick behind center. 

As talented as Vick isafter all, he's a former No. 1-overall pick with four Pro Bowl appearances in his careerhe's never been the most accurate passer. Entering this season, the lefty completed 56.1 percent of his passes during his 12 seasons. He's simply not going to sit in the pocket and pick apart a defense. 

In his recent opportunities, though, Vick performed better than expected. At the very least, the veteran quarterback didn't lose his team games, as NFL.com's Gil Brandt stated: 

Also, Vick doesn't use his legs to set up the pass. Unlike Roethlisberger, he uses his legs as a weapon in the offense. 

These are things that everyone should be mindful of after watching Roethlisberger the past few seasons. After developing in Pittsburgh's run-heavy offensive scheme early in his career, the quarterback's ability to efficiently and effectively orchestrate the offense became the primary emphasis under Todd Haley's direction. 

Last season, Roethlisberger set career highs in completions, attempts, completion percentage and passing yards. He also tired a career high with 32 passing touchdowns. 

The Steelers' Super Bowl winning quarterback was in complete control of his offense. Now, the entire roster must shift gears due to his absence. 

Vick obviously lacks the same grasp of the scheme, since he's only been with the team for a little over a month. The quarterback stated that his version of the offense will feature a limited playbook, via Bouchette

Coaches don’t want me to go out there and just try to do it all. We have guys who are very talented who can go out and make a lot of plays. It’s not for me to go out and try to win the game all by myself.

So I have to limit a lot of things and the plays that I’m not comfortable with right now. We have a ton of them, a ton of good ones.

Running the football effectively will help take pressure off the Steelers' new starting quarterback by letting him ease into position instead of asking him to carry the offense. 

A consistent running attack also forces a defense to walk their defensive backs toward the line of scrimmage. 

As long as Bell is producing, the defense must account for him. Getting a defense to drop a safety into the box to stop the running back opens up the back end of the defense to exploit mismatches for Antonio Brown or Martavis Bryant, once he returns. 

That ability to demand safety help currently belongs to Brown due to his unbelievable amount of production during his current streak of 35 games with at least five catches and 50 receiving yards. Defenses will attempt to keep a safety over the top or place bracket coverage on the receiver now, but defensive coordinators will be far less inclined to do so with Bell possibly running wild against their front sevens. 

Not only can Bell dictate defenses, but he can also be Vick's security blanket out of the backfield. 

The Ohio native shattered the team record last season with 83 receptions from a running back. He finished his sophomore campaign with 2,215 total yards. In his first game this year against the Rams, Bell ran and caught the ball for 132 total yards, even though he admitted on Twitter that he was still "shakin [sic] off the rust." 

If one-handed catches or leaping over defenders constitutes being rusty, Bell truly is a special back, one who should be the focal point of the offense even when Roethlisberger isn't injured. 

In fact, Bell's seven receptions against the Rams were two more than Williams caught through the first two games combined. 

Steelers schedule prior to bye week
WeekOpponentCurrent Record
4Ravens0-3
5Chargers1-2
6Cardinals3-0
7Chiefs1-2
8Bengals3-0
9Raiders2-1
10Browns1-2
NFL.com

As the third-year running back's work load increases in the coming weeks, so will the opposing defense's degree of difficulty.

Of the Steelers' next six opponents, only the San Diego Chargers don't currently reside among the top half of the league in stopping the run. Three of those defenses—those of the Baltimore Ravens, Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengalsare currently ranked 11th or better against opposing ground games. 

Yet the ability to establish the run will become vitally important for Pittsburgh, though not necessarily for the reason many might believe. 

Yes, Bell's ability to run the football is a boon for the offense. It also helps clock management and in keeping a subpar Steelers defense off the field. 

This may be cliche, but it's certainly rings true: This isn't your father's Steelers defense. It's not even the same defense from a few years ago. 

Pittsburgh currently ranks 14th overall in total defense and surrenders 432.7 yards per game. And this comes after two weeks of playing against the anemic offenses of the Rams and the San Francisco 49ers. But there are clearly issues within the Steelers defense, particularly at linebacker and the secondary. 

Lawrence Timmons hasn't played as well as expected. The outside linebackers aren't a force off the edge. The team's cornerbacks continue to struggle in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus

The one game the Steelers played against a legitimate offense was the season opener against the New England Patriots, and Tom Brady shredded Pittsburgh's defense.  

In this case, the best defense is clearly a good offense. 

Furthermore, Roethlisberger will miss a critical part of the Steelers schedule. The quarterback should miss at least two divisional contests and possibly a third against the Cleveland Browns if he doesn't return before Week 11's bye. 

With the Bengals already starting the season undefeated, Pittsburgh simply can't afford to fall too far behind the AFC North's top team. 

Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

Not only will the Steelers potentially face multiple division rivals during the aforementioned stretch, but three other opponents look capable of vying for playoff spots. 

At worst, Pittsburgh should be able to split the next six games while the organization prepares for Roethlisberger's return. This goal should be easily accomplished if Bell continues to show why he's one of the NFL's top playmakers. 

Vick can still be a dynamic presence at quarterback for stretches. Brown is the game's best wide receiver. Bryant is an elite vertical threat when he's on the field. Tight end Heath Miller is always reliable. But none of them can dominate an entire game like Bell if he's on top of his game. 

The Steelers running back affects every area of the team both offensively and defensively. His play can make everyone look much better than they currently are.

Pittsburgh is counting on him to lead the team to yet another playoff appearance, and possibly more. 

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.