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Misconceptions Surrounding Le’Veon Bell, Part Four: Declining Talent

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Le’Veon Bell have a unique relationship. With that said, the Steelers’ All-Pro running back is also extremely misunderstood.

NFL: Pro Bowl-NFC vs AFC Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

In the first part of this series, I touched on Bell’s supposed greedy stance along with other monetary factors. In the second article, I talked about Bell’s supposed destruction of the Steelers’ cap. In the third article I discussed Bell’s past immaturity along with his injury history and examined how they relate to Bell’s future.

In this article I’ll delve into some of the fallacies that surround his 2017 stats.

Fans have stated how Bell started out 2017 sluggish for a variety of reasons, but not much is said about the teams Pittsburgh played against; these teams were solid defensively against the run. There is no denying Bell’s YPC was down last year, and he lost his breakaway speed. What is debatable is the importance of YPC, and if it even impacts his overall value to the team.

No. 1: One element I have heard over and over in the media and here at BTSC is how slowly Bell started in 2017. His statistics support this. But when do stats tell the full story?

Week 1 Cleveland Browns: Seventh-ranked run defense.

Looking at Bell’s YPC, some jump to the conclusion he had to have been rusty. But it’s important to note while a large chunk of the Browns was a dumpster fire, the run defense was emphatically not, and the Steelers’ offensive line wasn’t doing Bell any favors opening up holes. I implore you to go back and rewatch the game with this in mind, and you’ll see it clearly. Bell left very few yards on the field. He had 3.2 YPC during the game.

How did Cleveland do against other opponents in 2017?

Leonard Fournette had 3.9 YPC, 0 TDs, and 7 yards receiving.

The Vikings were seventh in the NFL in rushing, yet they only had limited success against the Browns with 2.69 YPC.

Jordan Howard was sixth in the NFL in rushing but managed an abysmal 2 YPC on 22 attempts against the Browns.

Melvin Gordon found better success with a 3.9 YPC. Gordon was 7th in the NFL in rushing.

Week 2 Minnesota Vikings: Second-ranked run defense

Bell accumulated an appalling 3.22 YPC. Another rusty game, right? Fans started to squirm and wondered if Bell hurt the team by not participating in training camp and preseason. Bell found only limited success against a top run defense, but that was the norm for others in 2017 against a stout Viking run defense.

Jordan Howard, in the second game versus the Vikes, put up 1 YPC. That is not a typo, that is actually a 1 YPC -- on nine carries, that yields nine yards.

Todd Gurley, whom a number of Steeler fans think is better than Bell, found the running just as tough. Gurley made Bell appear to have a stellar game with his pathetic 2.47 YPC -- a staggering figure, considering he averaged 4.68 YPC for the season.

The Vikings’ stout run defense did not wilt against the formidable duo of Mark Ingram and rookie phenom Alvin Kamara during the regular season. The Vikes put the clamp on the two and they combined to average 2.77 YPC, stunning for two backs who averaged 4.9 and 6.1 YPC, respectively, for the season.

The pair looked to avenge their early-season mediocre performances with a rematch in the divisional round. Again the Vikes were up to the challenge. Kamara had 3.9 YPC and Ingram put up a measly 2.5 YPC. The Vikings defense also was impressive against the Saints, who were fifth in the NFL in total rushing yards.

No. 3: Bell’s career is in decline. The 4.0 YPC average in 2017 is a clear indicator of this.

This nitpicking can be played off in several different ways:

  • Bell saw the teeth of some of the tougher defenses that pushed his numbers down.
  • So many close games led to Bell burning the clock more later in games while defenses sat and waited for him to get the rock.
  • The multiple suspensions and injuries reduce the effectiveness of the offensive line in the run game.

I do not view falling YPC as the canary in the coal mine. If this were indeed the case, many HOF RBs never would have made it into the hall. Instead, they would have been replaced.

There are 21 RBs in Canton. Let’s look at some their YPC stats.

Walter Payton faltered in 1981 with a 3.6 YPC average after a 5.6 YPC year. The next five years he was 4 YPC, with a high of 4.8 in 1985.

LaDainian Tomlinson’s YPC dipped in 2004 to 3.9, down from 5.2 in 2003. The next three years his average was over 4.3.

In 1996 Curtis Martin’s YPC tumbled to 3.5 from 4.2. He followed that up with a YPC over 4.0 for six of the next seven years.

None of Marshall Faulk’s first five years were over 4.1 YPC. And finished his career with a YPC average of 4.3. Many consider him the greatest dual-threat RB ever.

Emmitt Smith, who was behind arguably one of the greatest lines ever assembled, ended his career with a 4.2 YPC average. In 1996 his YPC was an abysmal 3.7, down from 4.7. He followed that up with four straight years of 4.1 or better and finished his career with a 4.2 average.

Oh, did you think I would forget Barry Sanders? Sanders finished his career with a stunning 5 YPC average, an incredible feat that will be hard to duplicate over a career by another player. Sanders was over 5 YPC in his first two seasons, but in the next three years he dipped to 4.5, 4.3 and 4.6. However, those years were but a distant memory when he rushed for 5.7 YPC the next season and then the impossible 6.1 YPC in 1997, during his 2,000-yard performance.

No. 4: Bell lost his breakaway speed.

I scratch my head on this one. Bell ran a 4.6 forty at the combine. I sure hope you are not confusing Bell with Chris Johnson or Zeke Elliott. Bell only has five carries over 40 yards so far in his career. His career-best 81-yard rumble exemplifies this. Bell went virtually untouched for 70 yards until he was caught from behind. This is the norm on any of his long plays.

I will point out that Bell did have his third-longest career reception of 42 yards in 2017 (the other two being for 43 and 48 yards). That reception was longer than any made in 2017 by the speedsters so many use as yardsticks, Tevin Coleman, Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara.

Are fans comparing Bell’s 2017 season to prior seasons, to other players in 2017 or to the success of past RBs? In my opinion, YPC and the slow start in 2017 are not trends but simply blips, and they’re not predictors of future success or lack thereof. A number of HOF RBs saw dips at times in the primes of their careers only to rebound for fantastic seasons, even record-setting seasons.

What makes people think Bell cannot?

Through five years, Bell has averaged 129 yards from scrimmage per game, the most since the NFL merger. That just is not good enough for some. They bring up his suspensions, which are becoming a distant memory. These fans worry about past injuries that have no bearing on the future and worry about future injuries that may not even occur. These fans do not acknowledge how if Bell would have played the last game in 2017, he would have been the first Steeler to lead the league in rushing since just a few years after WWII. They instead focus on a slight dip in YPC, or the loss of the breakaway speed he never had.

Pittsburgh has used seven draft picks on RBs from the time Franco Harris was cut until Jerome Bettis signed on as a Steeler. Pittsburgh used another seven picks at RB trying to replace Bettis after he retired and drafting Bell. Does Steeler Nation really want to waste draft picks trying to fill a void that can be filled with arguably the best RB in the league instead of plugging other holes?

At least Colbert showed Steeler Nation that there is never anything to fear regarding the salary cap (he and Omar Khan make the big bucks for a reason).

Luckily, all of this fuss blows overcome Week 1, when No. 26 is on the field doing what he does best.