Would Le’Veon Bell really make that big of a difference this season?
The panic in Pittsburgh over the Steelers 1-2-1 start has hit the boiling point. Fans are at an all-time high of impatience with their team and at the epicenter of the insanity is an All-Pro running back who would rather observe from afar than sign his franchise tender.
As rumors swirl about a Bell return during the Steelers Week 7 bye, it has some questioning if the Steelers would be better off with Le’Veon Bell on the field. Debates of his paycheck aside, I’m going to say it wouldn’t make a difference. Here’s why.
Do any of the people saying Bell would fix the Steelers problems actually remember how his 2017 season started?
If you’re of short memory, here is a reminder of how Bell’s season began through five weeks:
How soon have we forgotten about the Steelers abandoning the running game and Bell’s inability to churn out yards on the ground. 87 yards was respectable in Week 2, but not at 3.2 yards per carry. The same could be said for many of his receiving performances as well.
Yes, Bell is a special talent, but the Steelers lost two games in their first five weeks and eked out a Week 1 win by three points over Cleveland. (Sound familiar?)
Le’Veon Bell only went over 100 rushing yards four times over the course of the 2017 and over 50 receiving yards five times. His rushing yards per carry was under four yards on average for eight of his fifteen games played.
As a receiver he caught 85 passes, but only caught two for touchdowns all year. He had three games with an average of ten yards or more per catch: hardly worth wide receiver “two” money that the back wants.
So the question is, would he make that much more of a difference right now? That’s debatable too.
The Steelers held opponents to 20 or less points in ten of their sixteen games last season.
In four games this season they’ve given up at least 21 to every team with margins of 21, 42, 27 and 26 points.
Unless Le’Veon Bell can play defense, the only way he would help is with keeping that side of the ball on the sidelines. Considering his lower YPC early last season, while also having a lower amount of touches in three of those games (two of which were losses) I’m not sold he’d be the sole difference maker to turn the Steelers fortunes around.
Wear and Tear
If Bell is worried about being damaged goods by having too much “wear and tear” on his body, then what good is he going to do to help the Steelers win? As mentioned above, Bell only carried the ball 15 times in each of the Steelers two losses through Week 5 of the 2017 season.
If he doesn’t want to grind for fear of an injury, how on Earth would the team benefit from his return?
September and October
Let’s take the time machine back to the last couple of seasons and see how the Steelers have done with and without Bell.
DeAngelo Williams, the former “1A” to Bell’s “1” on the depth chart, stood in while the latter was suspended to start the 2015 and 2016 seasons. In Bell’s place, Williams had a 127-yard rushing game in a loss to the Patriots in Week 1 of the 2015 season but followed that up with a 77-yard, 3 touchdown victory over the 49ers in Week 2.
Through four weeks of that 2015 season the Steelers had a 2-2 record.
In 2016, Williams kicked off the season with a 143-yard, two touchdown game and a 94-yard one. He caught ten passes for 66 yards and touchdown over those two games, both wins.
Week 3 of the 2016 was unkind as the Steelers abandoned the run. DeAngelo carried the ball 8 times for 21 yards with 4 catches for 23 yards. It was one of the worst losses in franchise history and sparked doom among the fanbase as the team started 2-1, but then 3-1 to end the first four weeks of the season.
They Steelers would drop to 4-4 in early November and actually lose four straight as they fell all of the way to 4-5 on the year before ripping off nine straight wins through the end of the regular season and postseason.
Bell’s slow start in 2017 is already documented above, as the Steelers went 3-1 through four weeks, then dropped to 3-2 following a bad home loss to the Jaguars in Week 5.
A similar pattern is developing with James Conner and the Steelers offensive woes. Like Bell and Williams, a lack of getting Conner involved has also hurt Pittsburgh’s prospects at winning.
Conner’s 35 rushing attempts for 135 yards and two touchdowns highlighted the Week 1 tie with the Cleveland Browns. He carried the ball 15 times against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but also added 34 yards receiving. He too only has one game with over 50 receiving yards this season (Cleveland)
Conner has 8 and 9 carries in both of the Steelers losses this season.
Both Conner's and Williams' production suggest that when the game plan goes against having any semblance of a running game, it really doesn’t matter who is in the backfield. Furthermore, if we go all the way back to 2015, when the Steelers defeated the Bengals in a Wild Card playoff game without either Le’Veon or DeAngelo, they were still able to run the ball with backups Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint: to the tune of 28 times for 123 yards.
Thus, saying Le’Veon Bell would be an instant correction for the course of the Steelers 2018 season is skeptical at best. If Bell returns and immediately lifts the offense, I’m going to be angry that he wasn’t there to do the same through the first six games.
The Steelers can ill-afford to have any missteps going forward after starting the season 1-2-1. If Bell shows up rusty like he did to start the 2017 season, that’s going to upset me too. It means he’ll be dragging the offense down and taking carries away from James Conner, limiting the second-year back’s ability to help the team win games.
Could Bell help?
He’s been lightning in a bottle for years.
Is he the answer?
When looking at past running back performance, that question will best be answered if and when Bell is once again in the backfield. For the moment, we can at least say its debatable.