Le'Veon Bell is one of the few players to which the "next man up" slogan really doesn't apply. The man accounted for almost a third of the yards gained on offense last season, touched the ball on over 40-percent of the team's offensive snaps, and provided above average blocking even when he wasn't touching the ball.
Bell is the kind of running back that becomes the foundation for the offense, where everything you do is based off him. You simply cannot replace a player who helps the team that much in that many ways. Well, you can't replace him with another running back anyway.
Ben Roethlisberger and Le'Veon Bell's oddly tag-team-like approach to this season is frustrating, the two having played together for just about 2 halves out of 8 games. Since fans apparently can only have one at a time for some reason it's worth comparing which is better to have. In that context, there's a strong argument that if you can only have one, Big Ben is the one you want to have. A great quarterback is even more involved in the offense and important to the offense than a great running back and has just as much ability to pick up a team and put it on his shoulders. Roethlisberger is a great quarterback, and even with the loss of Le'Veon Bell we are a better team than we were two weeks ago.
How good is Roethlisberger? Ask Antonio Brown. Brown averaged 4 receptions for 61 yards in 4 games with Michael Vick and Landry Jones starting. In 4 games with Roethlisberger starting, Brown averaged 9 receptions for 121 yards, even including Ben's rugged outing in his first game back from injury last week. Ben takes the passing game to an entirely different level. He makes every receiver on the roster better.
How good is Roethlisberger? Look at the stats compared to other quarterbacks. Roethlisberger is the only quarterback other than Peyton Manning to register three perfect passing games in the regular season and the only one to do it twice in the same season. He's the only quarterback to have thrown for over 500 yards twice. He's one of only four to win 100 games in their first 150 starts (along with Tom Brady, Terry Bradshaw, and Joe Montana). He's second in the league, behind Aaron Rodgers, in career yards per pass (well ahead of Tom Brady) and tied for 6th all time. If any quarterback can carry a team, Roethlisberger is undoubtedly one of them.
How good is Roethlisberger? Look at the offense this year with Ben in and Bell out and vice versa. The Steelers offense has scored an average of 27 points per game with Ben in and Bell out. The Steelers offense has scored only 17 points with Bell in and Ben out. By far, the Steelers' best offensive outing of the year came with Bell sitting on the bench. That's of course subject to small sample size and not controlling for strength of opposing defense, but it's still significant.
Roethlisberger has some help too. The drop off from Big Ben to Vick or Landry was brutal, but DeAngelo Williams is a very capable starter. Williams is still 28th in the league in total rushing yards, despite starting for only half the time as most of those ahead of him and barely touching the ball since Le'Veon Bell's return from suspension in week 4. Only 7 of those backs actually have more yards per rush than Williams. The Steelers definitely lose something with D-Will replacing Bell, but not nearly as much as with Landry replacing Ben.
On the topic of help, outstanding defensive support means Roethlisberger only has to worry about taking the offense on his shoulders. He doesn't have to carry the whole team. The Steelers defense still has the 5th best defense in the league (by points allowed) despite having played the top three scoring offenses in the league and six of their eight opponents thus far sitting in the top half of the league in scoring offense. This Steelers defense is a legitimate top 5 defense, and that makes the burden on Roethlisberger much lighter.
If I had to choose between having Ben or Bell, I'd of course choose both. But that's not an option. You can hate the fact that Bell is gone for the season, and I assure you I do. It hurts the team and it obviously hurts Bell himself, who seems like a nice guy. If you're looking for something positive to focus on, though, don't let the loss of Bell kill all your enthusiasm at the return of Roethlisberger. It's no knock on Bell, but the quarterback position is just more important and Big Ben is just so good his return improves this team dramatically even with Bell out. The Steelers are still a very dangerous offense with "just" Roethlisberger.
GRATUITOUS INFLAMMATORY REMARK:
The Chiefs scored about 23 points per game and were 1-4 with Jamaal Charles healthy. They have scored about 26 points per game and are 2-1 with him out. The Chiefs were built around Charles even more than the Steelers were around Bell. If Kansas City can lose Jamaal Charles and still be even respectable, Pittsburgh can lose Bell and still be okay. In fact, it may help focus the team's offense and give them an identity that was hard to maintain with too many potential weapons.