If you like the Steelers, you love Le'Veon Bell. His patience as a runner has redefined the cliched use of the word, and he may just be the best receiver in the league at his position. But, as the last couple of games have shown, his greatness goes beyond these traits. After stellar showings against the Bengals, Saints and Titans earned him mentions alongside Walter Payton, his numbers against the Falcons and the Chiefs were downright pedestrian at first glimpse.
In the past two weeks, he gained just 110 yards on the ground, for 2.75 yards per carry. Defenses were selling out to stop him, putting extra defenders in the box and using an extra LB to spy on him. So what does a great running back do? He finds ways to impact the game in other, less obvious ways. As these last two games show, Le'Veon Bell's greatness manifests itself in hidden ways.
1) Greatness in Ball Security
Remember Bell's last fumble? You'll have to think a bit, because it didn't happen this season. In fact, among the top 19 running backs in 2014, he is the only one not to fumble. The next one on the list is Steven Jackson at no. 20, who has touched the ball 149 times less than Bell this year. Watch Bell play, and you immediately know why. Unlike a certain #34 who made Steelers fans nervous every Sunday with his loaf-of-bread style of carrying the ball, Bell secures the football like it's his newborn child anytime a defender gets even close.
He also avoids big hits, which is often noted as a great way to stay healthy but carries the less obvious benefit of a smaller fumbling risk. Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles did little wrong when he fumbled against the Steelers yesterday; instead, the sheer force of Tuitt's hit jarred the ball loose. Less fumbles means fewer turnovers, and that's been crucial in a season full of one-position games. When Bell carries the ball, the worst thing you can expect is a run for no gain. That's a great luxury.
2) Greatness as a Pass Blocker
The eye test tells me this is true, but I'll let someone far more qualified than me make the case. In case you missed it, read what BTSC contributor and great football mind Paper Champions had to say about Le'Veon Bell after he watched another team's running back get blown up in pass protection:
A lot of ink has been used calling Le'Veon Bell the best all-around back in football, but too much of that ink has been used to describe his running and catching at the expense of talking about his excellent blocking. Think about when the last time was when you saw Bell get blown up like this on pass protection. Don't spend too much time, because it hasn't happened yet. Therein lies what the Steelers have found in Bell.
Don't think for a second that the Steelers' improvement in pass protection is a coincidence. I'll be the first to praise the impact of health and Mike Munchak on the improved offensive line, but having Bell back there sure helps. He is a true three down back in a league where three down backs are becoming rare. He can simply do everything a coach could ask of a running back, which also includes the last and perhaps most crucial aspect of his hidden greatness:
3) Greatness in Short Yardage
When was the last time you watched a Steelers game, the offense was in a short yardage situation and you were so confident in converting, you immediately started thinking about the next set of downs? I'd have to go back to the days of the Bus for that, but Le'Veon Bell has brought that feeling back. His ability to squeeze out a single yard when needed has improved as the season has progressed, and may be the single most under-appreciated part of his game. This past spring, Steelers fans got excited about LeGarrette Blount because we thought he would give the Steelers what they had lacked for a long time: a great short-yardage back. Turns out Bell did it better than Blount, and we all know what happened next.
Sure enough, the last two weeks have seen Bell score two touchdowns from the one yard line, neither of which looked like they even took much effort. In those two games, the Steelers faced 2nd or 3rd and 1 situations 10 times. The results:
- 1 automatic first down via penalty
- 1 complete pass to Heath Miller
- 2 incomplete passes
- 6 Le'Veon Bell first downs.
Both incomplete passes occurred on second down, and both led to first down runs by Bell on the ensuing play. For those counting at home, that's a 100% conversion rate on short yardage situations. The Steelers' success in these situations is a major reason why the team is ranked 5th in third down conversion rate at 45.7%, and Bell is playing a starring role.
So please Kansas City, put a spy on our running back. By all means Atlanta, keep that extra defender in the box. You may limit his touches, but you won't stop him from making a significant impact on the game. That's the hidden aspect of Le'Veon Bell's greatness as a running back.