PITTSBURGH -- For those who have watched him closely this season, you probably could see Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell growing exponentially each week.
In his second NFL season, and through just 20 games, Bell has become one of the most complete backs in the league. He leads the AFC with 599 yards rushing, which is third in the NFL, but he also has 36 catches for 339 yards. Bell has one touchdown each way, but each was a thing of beauty.
"Le'Veon's a great running back,'' Steelers wideout Antonio Brown said. "He can catch the ball out of the backfield, take advantage of one-on-one matchups and provide blocks for the passing game. So, he's an all-around great player.''
Bell was in the slot against the Houston Texans Monday night and hauled in a five-yard toss from Ben Roethlisberger where he beat the coverage and made a tough catch. His touchdown run of 38 yards against the Cleveland Browns in the opener combined power and speed, a lethal combination for a 6-foot-2, 230-pound running back. Bell also had an 81-yard jaunt at Carolina.
He also hauled in a short pass and completed a 42-yard catch-and-carry that set up the first of Pittsburgh's three touchdowns in a 73-second span against the Texans. So, he can be successful in the Steelers' passing game as a wideout or coming out of the backfield.
"They both have pros and cons,'' Bell said. "They press me more when I'm split out, because I really haven't had the respect of a receiver like A.B. He doesn't get pressured at all. Rarely."
"But when I come out of the backfield, usually a safety or linebacker is on me. So, I'm comfortable with both. (And) things have really slowed down for me this year, so I can see everything happening and just read as I go.''
Bell was targeted eight times and caught eight passes for 88 yards against the Texans. He also ran 12 times for 57 yards, but the 20 total touches is a little low for what the Steelers envisioned when drafting him in the second round.
"I don't even think that we've used him to his full potential,'' Roethlisberger said. "We had one series of no-huddle last week, but when we're in no-huddle I like to get him out in empty sets because I can utilize him with mismatches. So, I still think the best is yet to come from him. He's a very good route runner."
"Obviously, you saw on that big play (43 yards) that he had early in the game where he went up on the linebacker and shook him at the top to get open, and he caught one real early in the game where it was a contested catch. And he hung onto it. So, I just think that speaks to his work ethic and what he does.''
Bell and the other Steelers backs catch passes each day from their position coach, so it's not like he doesn't work on it. In fact, Bell takes pride in what he can do as a receiver as much as he does as a runner. He has to do both well for the Steelers' offense to be a multiple threat like Coach Mike Tomlin desires.
"We don't want to run him to the wheels fall off, but you've got to have him out there because he can do a little bit of everything,'' Roethlisberger said. "That's why I've said that I think he's one of the best all-around backs in the game. (But) I think it creates a lot of opportunities when he's in an empty set, because you could see who's on him."
"When he's coming out of the backfield, it's usually about getting lost. Is he blocking or going out from the pass, but I really like him in an empty set, because you can see right away what you're going to get. ... We've been in the no-huddle 25 percent of the time this year, and we use him a lot in the no-huddle. So, I don't even think we've tapped into what we can do with him yet.''
If Bell continues at his current pace, he'll surpass 1,000 yards rushing. But he also should shatter the Steelers" pass-catching record for running backs. John L. Williams, a bruising fullback, completed a 10-year career with two seasons in Pittsburgh and set the team mark with 51 catches in 1994. Three times he had more than 70 catches during his previous eight seasons in Seattle, including a high mark at 76 in 1989. Williams ran for 5,006 yards (4.0 average) and 18 touchdowns and caught 546 passes for 4,656 and 19 more scores.
"I didn't anticipate this type of success, but I was always confident that I could catch the ball,'' Bell said. "I didn't know I was going to be this involved with the offense, the passing game, I mean. But it's been a lot of fun. (And) I feel good. The whole time here, I've been preparing to get the ball 20-25 times per game."
"So, my legs feel great and my body feels great. I haven't had to take too many direct hits. Me losing that weight (about 12 pounds) makes me a lot quicker, so I don't take too many direct hits now. (And) it's great that Ben has confidence in me, and that just makes me want to make a play for him.''
Notes: ILB Ryan Shazier (right knee sprain) was a full participant in practice Thursday, and if he doesn't have a setback should play Sunday. ... CB Ike Taylor (right forearm) and S Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) were limited. Neither is expected to play this week. ... OT Marcus Gilbert (concussion) and NT Steve McLendon (right shoulder) did not practice for the second straight day. Neither is expected to play. Mike Adams would start for Gilbert, while Cam Thomas is expected to open for McLendon, but rookie Daniel McCullers will get more time.