The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Sports

December 19, 2013

Bell enjoying productive season

PITTSBURGH — Le’Veon Bell listens to his instincts, not his mother, in his job as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ running back.

A half-dozen times this season, Bell has found himself in the open field with an opponent taking aim at his legs. Rather than churn for a few extra yards, Bell instead launches himself into the air as if to turn the defender into the world’s largest hurdle.

Sometimes it works out, as it did when he cleared Cincinnati’s Dre Kirkpatrick for an 8-yard gain in last week’s 30-20 win over the Bengals. Sometimes it doesn’t. Later, Bell tried the same move only to fall awkwardly to the ground.

Both times Bell was disobeying an order from his mother, who is worried the laws of physics will eventually catch up to her son. Bell does his best to avoid the topic when it comes up.

“When I talk to her, she’s going to try and talk me out of it again,” Bell said with a laugh. “But it’s something that really happens naturally.”

Like just about everything else on the field for the versatile back who is becoming a vital part of an offense trying to keep the Steelers (6-8) on the fringe of the playoff race.

Bell has a chance to break several team records over the final two weeks, heady territory for a player who missed half of training camp and the first three games of the season with a left foot injury that seemed to hint at fragility.

Hardly.

His next carry will be the most by a rookie in team history.

He’s nine receptions from surpassing John L. Williams’ club mark for most catches by a running back in a single season.

Oh, and he’s 202 yards from scrimmage short of surpassing Franco Harris for the most productive season by a rookie running back on a team that has been around for 81 years.

The yards have been hard-earned ones. Playing behind an offensive line in a constant state of flux, Bell is averaging a paltry 3.26 yards per carry, 44th-best among qualified backs.

The numbers, however, are a bit deceiving. Bell has spent most of the last six weeks in an offense that works heavily out of the shotgun, meaning Bell is often standing still when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hands him the ball. What open space Bell finds is often created by twisting his 6-foot-1, 230-pound frame through slivers that most backs couldn’t squeeze through.

“I don’t look at it as tougher, just different,” Bell said.

The Steelers chose Bell over Alabama star Eddie Lacy because of Bell’s diversity. His 43 receptions aren’t all simple dump-offs or screens. Against the Bengals, he converted a fourth-and-4 from the Cincinnati 31 by lining up in the slot and running an out pattern before extending his hands to make the catch.

“He does some amazing things in the passing game,” said Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown. “His yards from scrimmage is amazing and he continues to get better and better as the game unfolds.”

Bell is averaging over 24 touches over the last four weeks, looking very much like the workhorse who led the nation in rushing attempts at Michigan State last fall. At age 21, he’s one of the youngest backs in the NFL, yet carries himself with a maturity that has quickly won over his teammates and coaches.

Pressed this week on why the Steelers chose Bell over the more accomplished Lacy, coach Mike Tomlin called it an “easy” decision based on Pittsburgh’s needs after the team made no attempt to re-sign mercurial Rashard Mendenhall.

“To be honest with you, he was kind of ready-made ... when we got him,” Tomlin said. “If you look at his numbers from Michigan State and look at his tape from Michigan State, he was a man for all situations for those guys.”

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