PITTSBURGH (AP) — The request comes near the end of practice most Wednesdays. Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley will be standing off to the side when running back Le’Veon Bell inevitably jogs by to make an all-too familiar plea.
“I’ll take another 35 (carries),” Bell will say.
He’s only half-kidding.
The player who believes he’s redefining his position — and believes he should be compensated as such — spent the early portion of the season politely asking for the ball. Haley has responded by giving it to his franchise back at near-record pace. Bell is averaging nearly 29 touches a game for the first-place Steelers (5-2). If the 25-year-old maintains it over a full season, he’ll come within shouting distance of James Wilder’s 492 touches for Tampa Bay in 1984.
It sounds like a lot because it is a lot. And while everyone from Haley to the training staff to head coach Mike Tomlin to general manager Kevin Colbert meet regularly to discuss Bell’s workload and the thin line between enough and too much, considering how well Bell is playing and how fresh he looks, it’s hard for Haley to find a compelling reason to take him out.
When Pittsburgh’s season appeared to be at a crossroads following a loss to Jacksonville earlier this month, the Steelers put the offense in Bell’s hands. He responded with 191 total yards in a victory at Kansas City and followed it up with 192 more in a dominant win over Cincinnati, a performance that included a stiff-arm on Bengals defensive back Dre Kirkpatrick instantly immortalized on social media .
“If anybody saw something different, our approach might change,” Haley said. “He’s out here on Wednesdays finishing to the end zone and doing the things that he did when he first got here, maybe even better and harder.”
Maybe because the Steelers have as much at stake this season as Bell. Pittsburgh placed the franchise tag on him in February and when the two sides couldn’t agree to a long-term deal, Bell opted to skip the entire offseason program , training camp included. It wasn’t a protest necessarily as much as self-preservation.
Bell understood the decision not to sign his one-year tender until Labor Day made him look selfish. It’s a stand he was willing to take because of the potential long-term benefits for both himself and his team.
“(It took) a lot of cuts off my body, me cutting and planting in the ground and obviously hits from not being there for 4-5 weeks,” Bell said. “Obviously the first couple weeks getting back into pads and things, I was slow getting started but now I feel good.”
And Pittsburgh’s offense suddenly looks good. After spending the early portion of the season trying to keep everyone happy, Haley seems to have settled on letting Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown do the heavy lifting and if anyone else can chip in, all the better.
It’s a formula that served as the jet fuel for a nine-game winning streak last fall that lifted the Steelers from a 4-5 midseason malaise all the way to the AFC title game. The stretch ended, however, when a left groin issue that’d been bothering him for some time flared up in the first quarter against New England. The player who led the NFL in average yards from scrimmage last season watched from the sideline as the Patriots pulled away for a 36-17 victory.
It marked the third consecutive season Bell wasn’t on the field for Pittsburgh’s final offensive snap. A hyperextended left knee in the 2014 finale against Cincinnati forced him to sit out a playoff loss to Baltimore. In 2015 he tore ligaments in his right knee in Week 8 while getting dragged down from behind by Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
Bell is essentially playing on a one-year deal. While he’ll make $12 million this season — tops among running backs — he wants more because he believe he can do more. To get a payday that will reset the market, however, he understands he needs to stay healthy. He’s taken steps to help make it happen, from adjusting his diet to making sure he avoids the kind of direct hits that can shorten careers.
“I don’t kind of run into guys,” he said. “I’m patient. I pick my spots and I get to the ground. I don’t think I take a lot of hits.”
Bell estimates he only took four to five clean shots during his 35-carry day against the Bengals. If he can keep the number in that neighborhood, he’ll take his chances, particularly as the clock winds down and the game hangs in the balance.
“I figure guys out and how teams are trying to play me,” Bell said.
Which helps wear defenses down over the course of four quarters. It’s not just hype. Bell is averaging 4.5 yards per carry in the second half of games during his career, compared to 4.3 in the first half. If it’s late and the ball is in his hands, he’s in his element.
“I cannot place a guy that has the ability he has,” said Detroit head coach Jim Caldwell, who will get a close-up of Bell on Sunday night. “He’s very patient with exception of vision, and he can start and stop, and hit it into third and fourth gear in a hurry. He’s an unusual guy, really. I mean just pretty special.”
NOTES: DE Stephon Tuitt (back), TE Vance McDonald (knee) and RT Marcus Gilbert (hamstring) did not practice Thursday. … WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (concussion) was a full participant.
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