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Bell's versatility could make him elite running back

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A leaner, more experienced Le'Veon Bell could be the difference-maker for the Steelers offense in 2014.

Justin K. Aller

Le'Veon Bell is the Steelers' best running back.

He's also one of the Steelers' best pass-catchers.

Starting his second pro season, Bell looked lean and ready to anchor the Steelers' running game. He also looks to again provide quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with a reliable pass-catcher out of the backfield.

A year after pulling in 45 catches, Bell caught six passes for 88 yards in the Steelers 30-27 win over the Browns. Bell totaled 197 yards on 27 touches when you add in his 21 carries for 109 yards and a rushing touchdown.

Bell did most of the damage in the second quarter to help Pittsburgh gain a 27-3 advantage at halftime.

After gaining 12 yards on the Steelers first two plays of a second-quarter drive, Bell took a short pass from Big Ben and scampered 30 yards into Browns territory. This play helped set up Roethlisberger's 35-yard scoring strike to Antonio Brown to help the Steelers jump out to a 17-3 lead.

Bell went right back to work on Pittsburgh's next possession, scorching the Browns defense on a 38-yard touchdown scamper to put the Steelers up by three touchdowns.

Quarterbacks aside, no other offensive player totaled as many yards on Sunday as Bell. He was the game's leading rusher and also the Steelers third most productive receiver behind Brown and fellow second-year man Markus Wheaton. With Lance Moore out and with Darrius Heyward-Bey not recording a catch Sunday, Bell wasn't just a luxury but a necessity for Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh's passing game.

In 14 pro games, Bell has 51 catches on 73 targets for an average of just under a four-catch-per-game average on five targets. Those are good numbers for a No. 3 wide receiver or tight end, let alone a running back. Bell's ability as a receiver is an offensive dimension that Roethlisberger is taking advantage of.

It's that multipurpose ability that could propel Bell into the elite echelon of NFL running backs. LeSean McCoy, a Pitt product and arguably the second-best NFL back behind Adrian Peterson, pulled down just seven more passes than Bell last year but he did play in three additional games. He had six catches for 41 yards to go with his 74 yards rushing in the Eagles first outing of the year. Peterson caught 29 passes a year ago and had two more for 18 yards in addition to his 75 yards rushing on 21 carries in the Vikings Week 1 win.

After rushing for 860 yards for a 3.5 yards-per-carry average last season to go with his 399 receiving yards, Bell's statistics should be better this season for several reasons. He has a healthy Maurkice Pouncey anchoring the offensive line. With another year under his belt, Bell's vision and decision-making in space should improve as well. This season, Bell also has bruiser LeGarrette Blount to spell him and help monitor his carries to keep Bell fresh for the duration of the season. Bell also looks lighter than his listed weight of 244 pounds, which looked to be the difference in Bell breaking off several big chunks of yards on Sunday.

With a short week in store that sees Pittsburgh traveling to Baltimore for Thursday's duel with the rival Ravens, expect a more condensed game plan that should include a bevy of carries between Bell and Blount. And with the memory of last season's crushing hit of Bell late in the Steelers' loss at Baltimore surely still fresh in his mind, look for a very motivated Le'Veon Bell to take the field Thursday night. Albeit it in a losing effort, the Ravens held the Bengals to just 3.0 yards per carry on 26 attempts in Cincinnati's victory.

It's the perfect time for Bell to show that can elevate his game against the league's best defenses. With a game against the rival Ravens in Baltimore in front of a national TV audience just three days away, there's no better time for Bell to show the Ravens and the rest of the league what he can do.