Steelers notebook: Running back's versatility starting to pay off

Rookie running back Le’Veon Bell has yet to have a 100-yard rushing game in the NFL, but he has been one of the most versatile first-year running backs in team history.

Bell has topped 90 yards from scrimmage in four game this season, joining Franco Harris, Bam Morris and Tim Worley as rookies who did so at least four times. Harris did it eight times in 1972, Morris five times in 1994 and Worley four in 1989.

Bell’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield is a big reason he is on that list.

In addition to leading the team in rushing with 455 yards, he is fifth in receiving with 26 receptions for 256 yards. That’s already more than the Isaac Redman had last season when he led all Steelers running backs with 19 receptions and 244 yards, and it’s the most for a Steelers running back since Mewelde Moore had 26 catches in 2010.

And Bell has done all of his damage in the past eight games after missing the first three with a foot injury.

“I love catching the ball,” Bell said. “That’s something I always look forward to. I love running the ball, but you don’t really get the opportunity to be in space as a runner that much. As a pass-catcher, you have a lot of space, so I look forward to catching the ball out of the backfield and making plays.”

Many of Bell’s receptions have been of the big-play variety. He had a 43-yard reception against the Detroit Lions and a 34-yarder against Buffalo. He also had a 29-yarder against New England and a 19-yarder against Minnesota.

“It’s all part of the game plan and how we can create a matchup with me and a linebacker,” Bell said. “The coaches do a great job of getting me an opportunity to make a play on a linebacker or a safety who is coming down to guard me in the passing game.”

Bell has a long way to go to catch the top pass-catching running backs in team history. Jon L. Williams led the Steelers with 51 receptions in 1994. Merrill Hoge tied for the team lead with 50 in 1988 and Walter Abercrombie led the team with 47 in 1986.

Turkey bowl redux

A family tradition will be reprised Thursday night when Bruce and Gino Gradkowski play a football game. Only this time, the venue will be M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore instead of Dormont Stadium or Hemlock Park in Green Tree.

Bruce, the backup quarterback for the Steelers, and Gino, the center for the Ravens, have always shared a football field on Thanksgiving Day.

Many of those games featured some talented players. Gradkowski’s cousins, Joe and Ralph DelSardo, took part. Joe played receiver at Pitt and Ralph played receiver at Morehead State. Another cousin, Carmen Connolly, played receiver at West Virginia. One of his uncles, Mark Gradkowski, played college football with former Steelers offensive lineman Tunch Ilkin at Indiana State.

“We’d all go to the field,” Bruce said Tuesday. “You’d put your old sweats on knowing you’d get dirty and just have fun. On Thanksgiving, that’s what it’s all about, eating good food, being with family and football.”

Gino, who played at West Virginia and Delaware, was there, too, but not always involved in the game with the older relatives.

“Gino would be there, but he was good six years younger,” Bruce Gradkowski said Tuesday. “He was probably snapping the ball even then, or just running around.”

This will be the fourth time Bruce and Gino have played against each other in the NFL. Bruce owns a 2-1 record in those games. They split two games last season when Bruce was the backup for Cincinnati and the Steelers beat the Ravens this October.

Injury update

Defensive end Brett Keisel, who missed the past two games with a foot injury, was a full participant in practice Tuesday as were defensive back Shamarko Thomas (ankle) and linebacker Stevenson Sylvester (hamstring) … Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who missed the past two games with a calf injury, was a limited participant. Also limited Tuesday were offensive lineman Marcus Gilbert (ankle), tight end Heath Miller (not injury-related) and Troy Polamalu (not injury-related) … Defensive back Curtis Brown, who injured his knee Sunday against Cleveland, was placed on injured reserve.

Ray Fittipaldo: and Twitter @rayfitt1.

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