Is Le’Veon Bell back to being the Steelers WR2?

Le’Veon Bell‘s huge receiving game on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers was nothing short of incredible. Bell’s 12 catches set a new Steelers single-game record for a running back, besting a 35-year mark set by Franco Harris back on September 19th, 1982.

Bell’s performance was one for the ages, but it also got me thinking about something which came up during the offseason. It jogged my memory of a comment the running back made months ago, in regard to his contract situation.

A lot of people thought that Bell was out of his mind. The player sat out of the Steelers training camp and that was really the last we heard of it, as he finally signed his franchise tender.

Most of that is history now, at least until the NFL business season ramps back up following the Super Bowl (since Bell isn’t currently signed to a long-term deal). But that still begs the question of whether or not Bell could be considered the Steelers number two at the wide receiver position.

I’ve long argued he was the second-best receiver on the team, especially during the 2016 season where Pittsburgh hodgepodged together a band of receivers following Martavis Bryant‘s suspension and Markus Wheaton‘s season-ending injury. Bell stepped in and had 75 catches, second on the team only to Antonio Brown (naturally).

But that pattern is beginning to take shape once again in 2017, as the Steelers attempted 90 passes over their last two home games and another 31 attempts on the road against the Colts just before that. In those three games following the bye week, Le’Veon Bell has been targetted 31 of those 121 times: a staggering 25% of Ben Roethlisberger‘s pass attempts.

Over that span Bell has caught 26 of those balls for 177 yards; no touchdowns, but he has a ridiculous 83.9% catch rate. Compare that with his 58 rushing attempts for 221 yards, and you’re starting to see the complex balance that Bell brings to the Steelers offense, a unit which has seen some of their own struggles with injuries (JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald) and performance (Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers).

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Those situations have opened the door for Bell to sneak back into the WR2 talk when comparing stats to the other Steelers. His 76 targets this season are second only to Brown (126) and the same for his receptions (61 to Brown’s 80). Bell has nearly doubled the next most productive receiver, Smith-Schuster, who has 33 catches. Jesse James (28) and Bryant (27) follow behind JuJu, who has more splash plays totaling more yards than Bell, forcing the running back into third in receiving on the team (568 for JuJu compared with Le’Veon’s 396).

Regardless, Bell has been a receiving threat since the bye week. He tied for a team-high in targets (7) and receptions (5) against the Colts and again against the Titans (11 targets, 9 receptions). His record-setting night against Green Bay saw him lead all Steelers in targets (14) and receptions (12).

In another offense, it would be far easier to dismiss Bell’s production as a byproduct of dump off passes, if it weren’t for Antonio Brown putting up video game numbers in those same contests. Brown had a pedestrian 3 catch 47-yard game against the Colts but has since lit up scoreboards at Heinz Field to the tune of 20 receptions for 313 yards and a whopping 5 touchdowns.

That’s clearly the production of a WR1, a.k.a. the top receiver on the team. But Bell’s numbers are also a clear second, and also best that of most receivers in the entire league. Bell currently sits at 11th in the NFL with his 61 catches, while he’s only the 31st most-targetted player.

What does all of this mean?

Looking way down the road, it could mean a lot of money for Bell, but pulling ourselves back into the playoff hunt, it’s a suggestion that the Steelers offense is finally getting into a comfort zone. The nucleus of Ben, Brown, and Bell are gelling at a time when the team sits atop the AFC as the one seed if the regular season were to end today. Home field advantage being key, those three “Killer B’s” will be vital the offense’s success.

But it also means that the Steelers can rely on those players if they must, but don’t necessarily have to. Bryant popped back up on the radar Sunday and Smith-Schuster has already been on the grid for several weeks. A healthy offense indicates there could be more on the horizon with five more games left to play.

It could also mean that Bell still ends up being the Steelers WR2 when it’s all said and done. Based on the team’s success since the bye week, that might not be a bad thing.

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