Steelers Le'Veon Bell warms up before his team's game against the Dolphins at Heinz Field Dec. 8.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Rookie running back Le'Veon Bell had just fumbled deep in Steelers territory Sunday, a gaffe that led to Green Bay taking the lead in the second half of a do-or-die game for the Steelers. On the next drive, Bell was sent back in and was given the ball on the first play.
He bust through the line, hurdled an approaching defender and ran 25 yards on a drive that eventually produced the touchdown that put the Steelers in the lead again. It was a sign of a coaching staff putting trust in a player to produce in a clutch situation.
"It's the only time this guy fumbled since we had him," coach Mike Tomlin said. "It made common sense to give him an opportunity to redeem himself. He's a competitor."
Bell finished with 124 yards rushing, his first 100-yard rushing game in the NFL and the first by a Steelers running back in 22 games.
It was one of several strong performances late in the season that clinched the Joe Greene Great Performance Award, given yearly by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Professional Football Writers Association to the team's top rookie.
"This is an individual award, but obviously [I] can't do it without my offensive line and the rest of the offense and the coaches putting me in the right position to make plays," Bell said. "It's crazy to even think about being mentioned in the same sentence as Joe Greene. I'm just thankful for the award."
Bell has 770 yards rushing and 1,163 yards from scrimmage. He can break the franchise record for most yards from scrimmage by a rookie if he gains 73 in the regular-season finale Sunday.
The record he would break is held by Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, who had 1,235 yards from scrimmage in 1972, in 14 games. Bell would break the record in 13 games because he missed the first three with a foot injury.
"That would be a great individual accolade," Bell said. "I'm definitely going to go out there and do whatever it takes to win the game. Hopefully, the record comes with it, but I just want to go out and get the W."
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has taken notice.
"He's done a great job," Roethlisberger said. "He's grown in the run game, the pass game, as a receiver and blocker."
Many rookies hit a wall because they are not used to the grind of a 16-game season, but Bell's best games have come in the past month. He had 80 yards rushing in a Nov. 24 game at Cleveland. He had 136 total yards five days later at Baltimore, and 107 total yards and a touchdown in the Dec. 15 win against the Bengals.
"This is a guy who has been continually on the rise," Tomlin said. "We're getting an understanding of what he's capable of and what we need from him. In the midst of it all, he's stayed humbled and grounded. I just like where he is."
The PFWA also gave veteran cornerback Ike Taylor the Chief Award for cooperation with the media.
Don't count on the Chiefs
The Steelers need help from Kansas City to make the playoffs, but history suggests Chiefs coach Andy Reid won't provide that help. The Chiefs cannot improve their playing seeding and have what amounts to a meaningless game for them at San Diego, which also is trying to make the playoffs.
In similar situations in the past with the Philadelphia Eagles, Reid has rested his players in the regular-season finale, and that's what he hinted at doing when he was asked Monday about his approach to the game.
"I'll evaluate all the different situations. I have sat people before ... quite a few times, actually, and benefited from that. But I'll look at everything and make sure I have that part evaluated," he said.
The Steelers were in similar positions under coach Bill Cowher and elected to rest starters. When the Steelers had the No. 1 seed locked up before the 2004 finale at Buffalo, Cowher rested many of his starters, including Ben Roethlisberger and Jerome Bettis. Tommy Maddox played quarterback, Willie Parker rushed for 102 yards and the Steelers won, 29-24, knocking the Buffalo Bills out of the playoffs.
"That was a long time ago," Roethlisberger said. "I do remember some guys didn't play. Every situation is different. Some people take the mentality of 'Let's get some guys some rest.' How banged up is your team? If you're banged up, it's a good opportunity to get rested. If you're playing pretty well and guys are healthy, it's a momentum thing. You can keep going and build your momentum and build your way into the postseason. I think every coach and every team is different."
Sanders sore but hopeful
Receiver Emmanuel Sanders received good news from an MRI that revealed no serious damage to his knee, but it is sore and he is not sure if he'll be able to play Sunday. Sanders injured the lateral meniscus in his knee. He worked with trainers Tuesday but did not participate in practice.
"Right now, I still have a little soreness," he said. "I'm not 100 percent comfortable playing on it because of the soreness, so we'll take it day by day. At some point, I have to make a decision about how comfortable I am. The game is a long ways away. I'm going to sit on the couch [today] and let it rest. I don't want to go out like this. I want to continue to play, especially with the playoffs on the line."
Sunday could be his last game as a Steeler. He can become an unrestricted free agent after the season.
■ Game: Steelers (7-8) vs. Cleveland Browns (4-11) in the final game of the regular season, Heinz Field.
■ When: 1 p.m.
■ TV: KDKA.
■ Favored: Steelers by 7.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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