Le’Veon Bell, running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers
Weight: 230 pounds
2017 Stats: 1291 rushing yards, 4.0 yards per carry, 9 rushing touchdowns, 85 receptions, 655 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns
Career Stats: 5336 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry, 35 rushing touchdowns, 312 receptions, 2660 receiving yards, 7 receiving touchdowns
Le’Veon Bell was drafted in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He quickly became the Steelers starting running back, rushing for 860 yards and eight touchdowns over 13 games in his rookie season. He followed that up with the best statistical season of his career in 2014, rushing for 1361 yards and gaining an additional 854 yards through the air with total 11 touchdowns.
2015 was a down year for Bell, when he missed 10 games. In the six he did play, he was still very productive, gaining 92.7 rushing yards per game. Bell missed another four games in 2016, but was even better in the 12 he did play in, rushing for 1268 yards (102.7 per game) and catching the ball 75 times for 616 yards.
In 2017, Bell saw the biggest workload of his career. He carried the ball 321 times and caught 85 passes, resulting in 1291 rushing yards, 655 receiving yards, and 11 total touchdowns. Currently, Bell is getting ready to play for the Steelers in the playoffs, who have a post season bye and will play the highest seeded AFC team to win in the wildcard round.
Patience and Vision
If you are familiar with Le’Veon Bell, you know that he is famous for his signature patient running style. He sits in the backfield and waits for his blocks do develop unlike any other running back in the league. When this willingness to let blocks develop is combined with the elite vision that Bell possess, it creates extremely effective running for the Pittsburgh offense. Here are some examples.
On this goal line run against the Ravens, the Steelers only score because of Bell’s patience. The Ravens did a really good job of stuffing the middle of the line on this play, leaving Bell nowhere to go. Rather than try to muscle his way through linemen, Bell simply waited until something opened up on the right side of the line. Then, all he had to do was fall forward to get into the end zone.
This is another play against Baltimore where, again, the Ravens initially did a really good job of containing Bell. The Ravens defensive line clogged up the lane Bell was supposed to run through on the left side of the field, so Bell cut the run back to the right. Because Bell hesitated several times, it allowed blocks to develop. Bell then got to the outside and was able to outrace everybody into the end zone (despite receiver Antonio Brown missing a key block on a Baltimore cornerback).
Here, Bell caught the ball two yards behind the line of scrimmage. He ran into a big pile of Steelers and Bills players in the middle of the field, but then just stood there for about three seconds, allowing more and more players from each side to get tangled up with each other. As soon as something opened up to the outside, Bell took advantage and converted a third and 10 with a big gain. Bell keeps himself alive on every play unlike any other player in the NFL, and this play really shows that.
Power and Agility
Bell’s patient running style isn’t the only thing that makes him an elite runner though. When he is in the open field, he has the ability to make potential tacklers miss or to run right through them. His combination of power and agility makes him able to turn any play into a big run. Here are a few plays were these abilities really shine.
On this play, Bell is tasked with converting a third and one against the Packers. Green Bay did a really good job of stacking the line and leaving Bell with nowhere to run. However, Bell used an awesome juke move to cut the run inside, making a Green Bay corner miss. Bell easily picked up the first down after that, and fought through some contact to pick up an extra five yards at the end.
Bell again catches a check down on this play against the Patriots. After making the reception, he immediately pulled off a sweet juke move to make a New England linebacker miss. Bell regained his balance immediately and accelerated past the first down marker, resulting in a gain of nearly 20 yards for the Steelers. For most running backs, this play would have only gained about five yards, Bell has the ability to turn it into a much bigger play.
Against the Dolphins in the 2016 playoffs, Bell had a big game. Here, he showed his agility as soon as he got the ball, cutting through lineman to get to the second level. Once he got there, he spun right through an attempted tackle from a Dolphins defensive back. Bell put his hand on the ground and displayed tremendous balance, getting all the way down to the one yard line on a run where most running backs would have been down at around the 10.
Pass Catching Ability
Le’Veon Bell is great at catching passes, both out of the backfield and lined up as a receiver. Bell has already had three seasons where he caught 75 or more passes. For reference, star Lions receiver Marvin Jones has never caught more than 65 in a single season. To further compare Bell’s receiving abilities to an NFL receiver’s, Jones has played 74 NFL games, while Bell has played 62. Jones has 250 catches for 3760 yards in his career, while Bell has 312 receptions for 2660 yards. That is 62 more receptions in 12 less games played.
On this play against the Ravens, Bell is lined up as a wide receiver at the bottom of the screen. He is against safety Tony Jefferson in man coverage. Bell ran a slant route, and made a contested catch with Jefferson draped all over him. After making the reception, Bell did a great job of turning up field and slipping his way between two Baltimore defenders and into the end zone.
This play against the Texans is less impressive, but shows Bell’s route running ability. He ran an out route against a Texans safety, again in one-on-one man coverage. Bell hesitated at at the top of his route, gaining separation from the defender. He then made the catch and fought through some contact to pick up a first down.
By far the biggest reason not to give Le’Veon Bell a big contract in free agency is his history of injury and suspension.
Injuries became an issue for Bell at the very beginning of his NFL career, when a sprained foot caused him to miss the first three games of his rookie season. Midway through the 2015 season, Bell was placed on injured reserve with a torn MCL. In last years AFC Championship game, Bell suffered a groin injury that caused him to miss most of the game.
Bell has also been suspended by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell twice. Once in 2015 when he was arrested with then teammate LeGarrette Blount with 20 grams of marijuana, and again in 2016 after he missed a league mandated drug test.
Heavy Work Load
There are some who question how much longer Bell can keep up his current level of production, despite him being only 25 years old. Bell touched the ball a league-leading 406 times this season. The last player to touch the ball 400 times in a season, DeMarco Murray in 2014, saw an immediate decline from 2261 yards from scrimmage, 5.03 yards per touch and 13 touchdowns in 2014 to just 1024 yards, 4.32 yards per touch and seven touchdowns the next season.
In Bell’s five year career, he has already touched the ball 1541 times (308 per season). That’s including the 2015 season when he missed 10 games. For comparison, future hall of fame running back Adrian Peterson averaged just 257 touches per season throughout his career.
Although Bell is young, the Steelers have put a lot of mileage on the running back, and the concerns about how long he can keep up his current level of production are legitimate. We already saw somewhat of a decline in 2017, when his yards per carry declined to 4.0, after it was 4.9, 4.9 and 4.7 the previous three seasons.
The Benefit of the Pittsburgh Offensive Line
Over the previous few season, Le’Veon Bell has gotten to play behind one of the best offensive lines in the league. The way the Steelers offensive line, tight ends and receivers run block is perfect when combined with Bell’s patient running style. The core of David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert make up debatably the best run blocking line in professional football.
Bell’s patient running style likely would be nowhere near as effective on a team with bad run blocking, such as the Detroit Lions. In Detroit, there exists the possibility that he would be hit much more frequently in the back field, making him a much less effective player.
Should The Lions Sign Him?
Le’Veon Bell is arguably the most talented running back in the NFL, and I would want him in Detroit on a reasonable contract with no hesitation. The problem is that he is likely going to command an extremely large contract in free agency. There are reports that he has already turned down a deal from the Steelers offering $12 million per year, and wants as much as $15 million per year.
All of this considered, I think it would be a bad move for the Lions to sign Bell to a long term deal averaging $15 million per year. That is just too much to pay a running back, especially one who has already shouldered as large of a workload as Bell has. When taking his past suspensions and injuries into account, Bell can’t even be counted on to always be there when the team needs him.
Signing Bell could turn the Lions run game around. It could make the offense truly elite. It could make Detroit Superbowl contenders for the first time since 1991. But it’s equally likely that signing Bell could backfire, and the Lions are stuck paying huge money to running back who is injured, suspended or ineffective behind the Lions poor offensive line.
I would not be angry if the Lions were to sign Bell to a front loaded deal where they could cut him after a few seasons. That could turn out to be a great move. I just have a hard time seeing that actually happening when teams will likely be in a bidding war for Bell. Overall, Bell is a phenomenal football player, I just don’t believe that Detroit is a great fit for him.
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