Do the Steelers Even Need Le’Veon Bell?

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell shocked his teammates and the football world, when he unexpectedly didn’t show up to team facilities ahead of Week 1 of the NFL season. The general thought was the Bell, who played on the franchise tag last year, would arrive to play when the real games began. After all, he pulled a similar move last year, failing to participate in any offseason activities and then missing all of the team’s training camp and preseason. Ultimately, the star running back did show up ahead of Week 1, and while he was a bit rusty to kick off the season, he quickly regained his dominant form.

So it was fair for the Steelers to assume that Bell would repeat his 2017 antics once again this year. But apparently, Bell felt disrespected, and he is doing what he needs to do to take care of his body, health, and financial security. Bell has been the most heavily utilized running back in the entire NFL over the last two years. The Steelers feed him the ball relentlessly in both the running and passing attacks. He has averaged 27.5 touches per game over that same time span. In the NFL, each play could lead to a serious injury. And Bell was simply fed up with the Steelers’ unwillingness to pay him his worth.

A similar situation happened to Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, who held out throughout the preseason, only to eventually give in, while still saying he felt disrespected by the team. When Thomas broke his leg earlier this season, he was understandably upset. He put himself and his body on the line for the same team, who was unwilling to put their money on the line for him.

Meanwhile, Bell has already stated that he plans to join the Steelers during their Week 7 bye. But as the young season continues to progress, the Steelers have groomed second-year running back James Conner to take on Bell’s workhorse role. Overall, Conner has been more than impressive in his five appearances this year. It hasn’t been all great, as he has struggled at times, only running for 17 yards on eight rushes against the Kansas City Chiefs. And once again in Week 4, Conner was limited to 19 rushing yards on nine carries in a Week 2 clash with the Baltimore Ravens.

But if you look at the games in which Conner shined, he really made the absence of Bell seem negligible. In Week 1, the Steelers gave him 31 rushing attempts, which he turned into 135 yards and two touchdowns. He also contributed in the passing game, with three receptions for another 60 yards. That game created the sense that Pittsburgh would be just fine without Bell. And once again in Week 5, Conner put on a dazzling performance, with 21 carries for 110 yards and two scores, ans catching all four of his targets in the passing game for an additional 75 yards.

Conner’s strong games beg the question: Do the Steelers actually need Bell back in the lineup to succeed?

The truth is there isn’t really a clear answer yet to this question. Conner has certainly flashed the potential of a bell cow back, who can contribute in all phases of the game. But he has yet to truly earn the respect of opposing defenses on a consistent basis. Especially not in the same way that Bell has done over the last few seasons. As a result, defenses are able to focus on Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and the rest of the Steelers’ passing game weapons.

While Bell offers something few (if any) running backs can provide to an offense, it remains unclear just how his teammates will welcome him when he finally arrives to practice. If Bell has actually lost the respect and trust of his offensive line, he could do even more damage both to himself and to the team.

Only time will tell how this situation will play itself out. But if Pittsburgh is able to win their Week 6 game in Cincinnati and consequently get to their bye week with a 3-2-1 record, they will have a serious dilemma on their hands.