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Steelers News: Penalties, not lack of participation, explain Le’Veon Bell’s slow start

The Pittsburgh Steelers finally got Le’Veon Bell back into the fold, but it still didn’t seem that things were back to normal on Sunday in Cleveland. But Mike Tomlin had an easy answer for Bell’s lack of production.

Atlanta Falcons v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers got a chance to watch game film of their Week 1 game against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, and Mike Tomlin didn’t change his view as to why running back Le’Veon Bell had one of the more mundane games of his NFL career.

It was the penalties by the offense—not Bell’s lack of participation during training camp and the preseason—which limited Bell’s impact.

During his weekly Tuesday press conference, Tomlin got agitated with questions from the media suggesting Bell’s holdout was responsible for his poor Week 1 performance. Tomlin reiterated how playing continually from “behind the chains” made the team too one-dimensional.

Although he has a point about penalties impacting the play-calling, it’s hard not to also entertain the thought that the Steelers mainly were knocking off some rust. Bell took some shots on Sunday and he likely realizes there’s work to be done. As for Tomlin’s comments, I chalk them up to a coach protecting his player(s).

Let’s get to some news outside the walls of BTSC:

The lowest yards-from-scrimmage output in Le'Veon Bell's 48 career regular-season games happened on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.

This happened after he missed all of the Steelers' off-season workouts, minicamp and training camp. It came after only four practices with the team, including only one in pads.

Coincidence? Steelers coach Mike Tomlin spent much of his press conference Tuesday defending Bell and saying his absence had no correlation to the slow start in the season opener.

And then, like Bell exploiting a hole in an opposing defense, Tomlin reversed field.

On the last question of the 20-minute media session, Tomlin was asked what Bell — held to 47 total scrimmage yards Sunday — needs to do better in Week 2.

“Just keep coming to work every day,” Tomlin said. “Get better.”

It was the only trace of dissatisfaction toward Bell's seven-month absence that Tomlin displayed following the 21-18 win in Cleveland and also when he faced the media on Tuesday for the first time since that game.

As he did post-game, Tomlin cited penalties as the biggest hindrance causing Bell to be minimized against the Browns (only 10 carries for 32 yards and three receptions on six targets for 15 yards). Only three other times during his first-four seasons did Bell total fewer than 60 scrimmage yards in a full game.

The Steelers were called for four holding penalties, a delay of game and an illegal peel-back, which was called against Bell late in the first half. Four of the offensive penalties came in the first half when Bell carried four times for 8 yards and had one reception.

“It kills a drive. It kills balance. It reduces the total number of snaps,” Tomlin said.

The Steelers ran 54 plays on offense, not counting penalties. By comparison, they only had two games last season with fewer offensive plays.

“You can have whatever discussion you want to have regarding our lack of production on offense,” Tomlin said. “You can talk it up to Le'Veon missing camp. You can talk about them being dominant. You can talk about whatever you want to talk about.”

“The reality is, when you are penalized like we were in the game, you are going to lose your balance. It's going to put you behind chains. You're going to lose third downs. You're not going to get as many snaps as you'd like, and the point total is going to reflect it, and it did for us.”

It's the lowest of low-hanging fruit.

Le'Veon Bell stayed away from training camp. So blame that absence for the Steelers' sputtering run game against the Browns in the season opener.

That seems to be a prevailing opinion of many fans and media members in the wake of Pittsburgh's 21-18 victory Sunday.

A+B=C

Yeah, if “C” equals Twitter hot take.

Really? That's the reason why the Steelers' run game totaled 35 yards on 17 attempts? Because Bell didn't get the eight preseason touches he got a year ago?

C'mon. That reasoning is too simplistic. Bell's teammates certainly seem to think so.

“That's on us. One way or another, we've got to make holes for him,” guard Ramon Foster said.

“We've got to do our job up front. We're highly compensated for our job. And we've got to deliver when asked.”

Foster is right. The Steelers' offensive line will count $35 million against the cap this year. Based on last year's performance, it's worth every penny.

That unit allowed Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked only 17 times last season. And it paved the way for Bell's 1,268 rushing yards.

Against the Browns, it simply didn't have a good game run-blocking.

But the pass-blocking was good enough. Roethlisberger was sacked just once in 37 dropbacks. But the gaping holes they created for Bell and DeAngelo Williams a year ago were nowhere to be found.

“(The Browns) did a good job,” guard David DeCastro said. “Give credit to them. We've got to get back in the lab. We've been able to run against good fronts before. That's the key to the game. Go back to the drawing board.”

Guard Alan Faneca and wide receiver Hines Ward again are part of a list of former Steelers who are among the 108 players and coaches nominated from the modern era for the next Pro Football Hall of Fame class.

Faneca was a finalist the past two seasons, his first as an eligible candidate. Ward did not make the finals in his first year of eligibility.

Other Steelers joining Faneca on the ballot are Joey Porter, Greg Lloyd, Gary Anderson and coaches Bill Cowher and Buddy Parker.

The Steelers flip-flopped veteran inside linebackers Tuesday, releasing L.J. Fort and re-signing Steven Johnson.

It is the second time they cut and signed Johnson this year. He played in six games for them last season.

Fort, 27, played four snaps on defense in the opener in Cleveland on Sunday and 16 on special teams. He played in 14 games for them last season after briefly joining them at the end of the 2015 season. He also played for Cleveland and Seattle.

The Steelers’ reputation for big hits, whether illegal or borderline, came to a head (a few times literally) on Sunday in Cleveland against the Browns.

A handful of Steelers can expect to pay the price, too, with heavy fines this week for the unusually large number of unnecessary roughness penalties called against them in the season opener.

Mike Tomlin thinks the officiating crew deserves one, too.

The Steelers coach said he was “irate” because he believes referee Craig Wrolstad’s crew illegally used a replay on the video board in FirstEnergy Stadium to throw a flag long after William Gay’s hit dislodged the ball from the hands of receiver Ricardo Louis in the third quarter along the sideline.

“That’s why I was irate,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “Look, I’m a big player-safety guy, obviously. I’m on the competition committee, so very rarely are you going to hear arguments from me regarding calls relevant to that, provided they’re done in real time. I thought they called it off the Jumbotron and I won’t accept that.”

Gay’s was one of four unnecessary roughness penalties called against the Steelers’ defense in the opener. That not only leads the league, it follows a recent trend by the Steelers for drawing roughing penalties.

Last season, they tied with Baltimore for 11 unnecessary roughness penalties. In 2015, they tied for fourth with 11, and in 2014 they tied for seventh with eight. They have not been out of the top 10 since 2012 when they had only two all season — half as many as they had in this year’s opener.