In his three years with the Steelers, running back Le’Veon Bell demonstrated that, when he’s on the field, he can be an incredibly potent weapon on one of the NFL’s most effective offenses.
That one clause — “when he’s on the field” — has been the only issue.
Bell missed at least one game due to injury in each of his three seasons in the NFL. Last year, he also was suspended for the first two games and played just six before an MCL injury ended his season in early November. And, most recently, he faced a suspension for the first four games of this season for missing a drug test, pending the results of an appeal.
The Steelers have been able to make do without Bell — they were a game away from the AFC championship last season. But all it really takes to understand what Bell’s absence from the Steelers offense means is to look at the numbers when he was on the field in 2015. In six games, Bell rushed for 556 yards, an average of 92.7 yards per game. Extrapolate that number over 16 games, and it comes out to 1,483 yards, just two yards behind NFL rushing leader Adrian Peterson.
The problem for the Steelers, though, is that it came over just six games. Bell was suspended for the first two following an offseason arrest with then-teammate LeGarrette Blount, and his season was cut short Nov. 1 when he sustained a season-ending MCL injury in a game against the Bengals.
The MCL injury last season wasn’t the first injury Bell faced during his short pro career, either. His career got off to an inauspicious start with a foot injury in his second preseason game that forced him to miss the first three games of the regular season.
He came back to run for 860 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie, and seemed poised for a big year in 2014.
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He managed to stay healthy for the entire 2014 regular season, finishing second in the NFL with 1,361 rushing yards. A knee injury, though, kept him out of the Steelers’ first-round playoff loss to Baltimore.
When Bell is on the field, he unsurprisingly dominates the Steelers’ running game. In games he played over the past three years, Bell accounted for 70.2 percent of the Steelers carries and 73.7 percent of the teams’ rushing yards in those games.
Last season, no other running back had more than five carries in a game in which Bell played (other than the game in which he was injured against the Bengals).
His dominance is even more pronounced in the passing game, as Bell accounted for 82.6 percent of receptions by Steelers running backs in games he played. No other Steel- ers running back has a touchdown reception during Bell’s three-year career.
For as big a part of the offense as Bell is, it is in many ways remarkable how effective the Steelers are in replacing him when he is out of the lineup.
Over three years, the team is 22-13 with Bell and 8-8 without him. Each season saw a different running back (or group of running backs) serve as the replacement. In 2013, it was Felix Jones and Isaac Redman. In 2014, Ben Tate started the one playoff game Bell missed.
The Steelers think they might have finally found a long-term contributor in DeAngelo Williams, who started the 10 regular season games Bell missed last season before an ankle injury kept him out of the playoffs.
Still, Bell’s absence does play a role in the Steelers offense. The team’s rushing effectiveness is largely unchanged (4.1 yards per carry with Bell in the lineup versus 4.0 yards per carry without him), but the Steelers tend to run less without Bell.
In games he played, they averaged 26.3 rush- ing attempts per game, for 107.7 yards. In games he missed, those numbers dip to 21.9 and 88.2, respectively.
The running backs’ usage in the passing game also is affected. In games Bell played, Steelers running backs averaged 5.3 catches per game for 45.7 yards. Without him, it’s just 3.9 catches for 30.6 yards per game.
The overall offense, though, is largely unaffected. In 35 games with Bell in the lineup, the Steelers averaged 25.1 points per game. In 16 games without him, that number actually crept up to 25.8.
Just about all of that overall lack of change can be attributed to the 2015 season and Williams. In 2013 and 2014, the Steelers saw point- per-game drop-offs of 11.9 and 10.3, respectively, in games without Bell.
Last year, though, they averaged 17.3 points per game in the six games Bell played. In the 10 games without him, it was 29.4. Williams started all 10 games Bell missed and rushed for 907 yards on the season, by far the most of any non-Bell running back over the last three years (second is Blount’s 266 yards in 2014).
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley said during OTAs in June that Williams’ effectiveness in 2015 could lead to less of a reliance on Bell in 2016, something that now may be a necessity.
“We’ve seen [Williams] for a full year in our offense and doing the things the way we do them, so I think it’s an exciting thing to look forward to,” Haley said.
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