In the Steelers depressing and disappointing 30-17 loss to Baltimore in the AFC Wild Card game, Saturday night at Heinz Field, many of the problems the team battled throughout the first three-fourths of the season, such as a failure to produce in the red zone, an inability to protect the quarterback, and crippling penalties, reared their ugly heads after a long absence.
Even though injured and absent star running back Le'Veon Bell was a huge part of the offense for all but one quarter of the entire regular season, as his 2,215 yards from scrimmage will attest, it might be a little out-of-line to say his presence in the line-up against the Ravens would have made much of a difference.
However, those 2,215 yards represented over 35 percent of the offense's total production, and his 1,361 rushing yards accounted for nearly 78 percent of the load for Pittsburgh in that category, according to ESPN.com.
It is true that Bell was producing huge numbers right from the start of the season--including the rather unimpressive first 12 weeks, when the Steelers went 7-5 and looked nothing like contenders--but he was also a big part of the four-game winning streak to end the regular season that catapulted Pittsburgh to an 11-5 record, a division title, a home playoff game and actually inspired confidence that, with such a Super Bowl-caliber offense--quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and receiver Antonio Brown were also having career seasons--there really was a reason to believe in a playoff run, even with an average defense.
But when a team loses a player who was clearly the catalyst for the offense--ESPN flashed a stat on Friday during its college football coverage that Bell accounted for 39 percent of Pittsburgh's offensive touches since Week 11, which led the NFL--it's hard to make up for that, especially when that player injures himself so close to the postseason.
Had Bell been forced to miss a few weeks in the middle of the season, the offense may have adjusted after a game or two, but six days before a huge playoff game? That's a little too much to ask.
It's amazing how playoff hope and excitement sort of blinds you to the reality of the situation. Like die-hard fans tend to do in January, there was a growing belief over the course of the week that a practice squad player and a back signed days before the wild card game--Josh Harris and Ben Tate, respectively--would be enough to make up for the absence of Bell, the team's MVP.
It's the same blinding hope that would have inspired us to believe the Steelers could go to Denver next week and defeat Peyton Manning with Antwon Blake and Brice McCain in the secondary. But there's hope and then there's reality.
So, could Bell have made such a difference in a game in-which the Steelers trailed by as many as 15 points with less than three minutes to go?
When a running back accounts for 35 percent of the offense, he's the team's MVP and maybe a contender for league MVP, yeah, I'd say it could have made a huge difference.