Le’Veon Bell will play football at some point this year. He has to, if he wants to earn an accrued season and reach free agency in March.
But at this point, he might not be the best option down the stretch for Pittsburgh.
That’s saying a lot, considering Bell is only 26 years old and a two-time, All-Pro first-teamer. But while Steelers owner Art Rooney told NFL.com last week he expects Bell to be on the roster this season, an objective observer could see how there’s some wiggle room in that statement. If the team finds a suitor for Bell before Tuesday’s 4 p.m. ET trade deadline, a big reason for that will be the spirited, aggressive play of his replacement, second-year running back James Conner.
To be clear, Bell remains the superior back, at least from this vantage point. He runs with power and patience, and is a workhorse capable of gashing even the most disciplined of run defenses. And if a team’s gap discipline is lacking – see: the 2016 Kansas City Chiefs – then he destroys them.
Throw in his plus pass-blocking and receiving skills, plus his established track record of production, and there’s little doubt that if a playoff game is on the line – my personal litmus test for making these types of comparisons – you’d rather have Bell.
However, it’s safe to say the gap between the two has shrunk among some NFL types more than you might think.
“Both good players,” one NFL decision-maker told Yahoo Sports. “[But] Bell creates mismatches in the pass game.”
That doesn’t mean Bell’s the right back for the Steelers down the stretch in 2018, especially given all the drama that’s already taken place between the two sides. After he failed to report in time to play for Week 1, his offensive linemen turned on him in a visceral way rarely seen in the NFL, as several violated the unwritten code among players of never speaking about another man’s money. Whenever Bell returns, that’s something that will need to be smoothed out, and it may not be easy.
What’s more, while Bell will almost certainly be playing elsewhere in 2019, the Steelers already have a very capable replacement in the fold in Conner, 23, who is absolutely rolling right now. And while the 6-foot-1, 233-pounder does not have Bell’s track record, he does run hard and decisive, and he has been a better blocker and receiver than anyone would have guessed. Most importantly, he is getting stronger in his first year as a starter.
Conner showed off his skills Sunday, when he led the Steelers to a 33-18 win over the Cleveland Browns with a masterful performance in which he rushed 24 times for 146 yards and two touchdowns, while also catching five passes for 66 yards.
Conner not only became the first Steeler in history to rush for 100 yards and multiple touchdowns in three straight games, he also has four 100-yard rushing and two-touchdown games on the season, one more than Bell has for his entire career. This shows, at the very least, the production between the two has been similar, something that has not been lost on NFL types.
“[He’s] just as effective,” another NFL decision-maker told Yahoo Sports.
Indeed. If he continues at this pace, Conner – a third-round pick a year ago – will finish with 1,208 yards and 19 touchdowns rushing, to go along with 69 catches for 685 yards. That, by the way, is eerily similar to Bell’s 2017 statline – 1,291 yards, nine touchdowns and 85 catches and 655 yards receiving in 15 games – though Conner is on pace to score 10 more rushing touchdowns, albeit with less defensive attention that Bell typically gets.
Perhaps the best thing Conner has going for him is the fact his teammates and coaches are really, really rooting for him. I remember watching the over-the-top way his offensive linemen celebrated with him after his first touchdown in their Week 1 win over the Browns and thinking, “This guy is an awesome match with that offensive line.” I even wrote a column about it.
But Conner has grown only better – more decisive, more confident – and at this point, the only ones surprised by his body of work are the people who aren’t regularly in the Steelers’ locker room.
“I had a front-row seat for his college exploits, so not that we are surprised by his talents, play demeanor or his displays of will,” coach Mike Tomlin said Sunday.
Conner’s emergence as a legitimate NFL starter – and perhaps more – means he has solidified a role in the offense, even if Bell isn’t traded by Tuesday. The latest Bell can come back and earn his accrued season is Week 12, but at this point, Conner isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, even if Bell returns to Pittsburgh. Conner has been there for all the workouts, all the battles. Part of the beauty of football is the shared pain and camaraderie that comes with going through adversity together. Tomlin cares about stuff like that, and benching Conner for Bell would almost certainly offend any coach’s football sensibilities at this point.
It’s reasonable to wonder if the same can also be said for the players, many of whom have obviously taken to Conner.
“Awesome – proud of him,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said after the Steelers’ victory Sunday. “It was so much fun to watch him go to work and be successful and hear the crowd love on him.”
With support like that, it’s easy to see why – if the Steelers can get anything more than the third-round compensatory pick they’ll get for losing Bell this offseason – they should entertain trade offers for Bell.
Until that situation is resolved, however, the Bell questions will remain. After Sunday’s game, Roethlisberger was even asked if Conner’s big performance against the Browns makes the loss of Bell any easier.
His response was indicative of a 4-2-1 team happy with the weapons it has.
“I don’t want to talk about Le’Veon,” Roethlisberger said. “I want to talk about this win and the guys that are here. Sorry.”
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