Powerful but nimble Bell has look of a No. 1 back for Steelers
May 1, 2013 4:00 AM
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Le'Veon Bell, selected out of Michigan State by the Steelers in the second round of the NFL draft, leaps over a Boise State defender in a game last fall.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Steelers wanted to improve their running game in 2012, then they did a strange thing: They did absolutely nothing to help the rushing attack and, in fact, reduced their chances of running the ball better heading into last season.
The team talked a good running game but slipped to 26th in the NFL rushing rankings in 2012. Their reaction this year was to actually do something to fix it, proving Chuck Noll's old self-effacing comment that if you hit a donkey in the head with a 2-by-4 enough times, he gets the message.
The Steelers learned a hard lesson last season. They knew their horse, Rashard Mendenhall, not only would not be ready to start the 2012 season because of a torn knee ligament but -- even in the words of general manager Kevin Colbert -- he likely would not be the same for a year.
The team responded by letting veteran Mewelde Moore go and added only a scatback, fifth-round pick Chris Rainey, to the equation in the 2012 draft. The results should have been predictable. The Steelers slipped from 11th and 14th in the league in rushing the two previous seasons and their 1,537 team rushing yards were the team's second fewest in seasons of either 14 or 16 games in more than 40 years.
So, like Noll's donkey, the Steelers got the message.
While they let Mendenhall leave as a free agent and cut Rainey, they slapped $1.3 million tenders on restricted free-agent backs Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman. They added veteran LaRod Stephens-Howling as a free agent. Then they drafted not a scatback but a big, bruising, athletic Steelers-type halfback in the second round.
Le'Veon Bell rings them up. He slimmed down to 230 from 244 pounds at Michigan State, where he sometimes hurdled defenders to avoid tackles or just took the easier path and ran over them. He averaged 137.9 yards per game last season and averaged 5.0 yards a carry in his career, scoring 34 touchdowns, fifth most in school history.
"If it was a 1-yard run, if he didn't have any room, he always seemed to fall forward for 4," Colbert said. "You look at his career average, it's right at 5.0. He's a big guy. He can go from being very patient to knowing when to hit a crease. He knows when to insert on those zone run schemes. And he can. He's a big kid that can block and he's got nice, soft hands."
Soft enough that Todd Haley said Bell can actually stay on the field on passing downs. The Steelers offensive coordinator called him a "three-down back, which is a big thing for us."
The Steelers scratched Alabama's Eddie Lacy off their board because of a toe injury. Haley said Bell was their top-rated running back in the draft.
Haley said running backs coach Kirby Wilson looked at tape of some of Michigan State's roughest games -- "The games where the back isn't necessarily getting those big holes, so you can see what he's really capable of doing on his own.
"Because, as we know, in the NFL the holes are a lot smaller," Haley explained. "This is a big guy that can play like a big back, and yet also can get outside some and catch the ball."
The Steelers drafted Bell to be their starter. So, where does that leave the other backs on the roster?
They signed Stephens-Howling primarily to return kickoffs, but he also can play on third downs, something former seventh-round pick Baron Batch also can do well. What kept Redman and Dwyer on the team -- those $1.3 million contract tenders -- might also drive one of them off it. Paying one backup that much is a lot for the Steelers, two is likely too much. The NFL Network reported that after the Steelers drafted Bell, they offered Dwyer to other teams as trade bait.
Redman would seem to have the edge on Dwyer as a complementary back to Bell, if it comes to that. Injuries, of course, can also play a hand in the makeup of the backfield.
"We have really good competition again at the position," Haley said.
There should be some good competition, between Redman and Dwyer to be No. 2, and between Stephens-Howling and Batch to be a possible third-down back. Bell looks like a starter.
"You look at a big, young back that can play in all three phases, but he's especially patient in the run game," Colbert said. "And like I said, he knows when to put his foot in the ground and cut up field and when he makes contact, he has a ton of yards after contact. It just seemed that every time he ran the ball, whether it was for a 1-yard gain before he fell into contact, he always ended up getting contact, so it's second-and-5."