There have been many great coaching minds over the years—including iconic Steelers’ head coaches Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher—who have said they probably make the game of football a lot more complicated than it really is.
On November 13, after Pittsburgh dropped its fourth-straight game to fall from serious Super Bowl contender to below .500 and into second place in the AFC North, the team’s current coaching staff, which includes head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, had to be scratching its collective head trying to figure out how to right the ship.
After Sunday’s 27-20 win over the Bills at New Era Field, a fourth-straight that now has the Steelers at 8-5 and looking more and more like the December version of what everyone thought they were in September and early October (a serious Super Bowl contender), it appears as if the simple solution was getting the football into the hands of running back Le’Veon Bell as often as possible.
Oh, sure, that was certainly a focus in the weeks following the end of Bell’s three-game suspension on October 2, but it seemed like attention was being spread in a lot of different directions in subsequent weeks, and rightfully. Obviously, with a world-class quarterback taking the snaps, and an all-world wide receiver as his primary target every week, well, those are some pretty expensive, talented and prideful toys to try and keep humming (in-addition to your All-Pro running back).
But when the offense was flowing from Ben Roethlisberger’s arm to Antonio Brown’s hands, things just weren’t clicking, at least not after Sammie Coates, Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey (due mostly to injuries) failed to establish themselves as severe consequences to frequently double and triple-teaming Brown.
With no real viable receiver threat other than Brown, and with Ladarius Green having yet to show anything, what to do as the Steelers entered Cleveland’s windy FirstEnergy Stadium on November 20?
Just make Bell less of a toy and more of a workhorse.
The result: 201 yards from scrimmage in a 24-9 victory over the Browns. For the day, Bell carried 28 times for 146 yards and added another 55 through the air on eight receptions. What made Bell’s performance all the more impressive was that he accounted for 65 percent of Pittsburgh’s offense, as Haley’s unit registered a total of 313 for the day.
Five days later, while Roethlisberger was connecting with Brown for three touchdowns and the defense was making impressive fourth down stops against the Colts offense, Bell “quietly” accounted for 142 of the team’s 369 yards (120 rushing and 22 receiving).
Ten days later, against the Giants at Heinz Field, 182 of the team’s 389 total yards were credited to Bell.
And, of course, this past Sunday’s historic performance in Buffalo, in-which Bell set a franchise record with 236 rushing yards on 38 carries (while adding another 64 receiving yards on four catches), was the most impressive.
In-fact, when you consider that Bell’s 298 yards from scrimmage accounted for all but 162 of the team’s total for the day, it may have been the most impressive offensive performance by a non-quarterback in franchise history.
All-in-all, the Steelers offense has totaled 1531 yards over the past four weeks and has averaged nearly 383 yards a game. Bell, meanwhile, has contributed 823 yards (or roughly 54 percent).
The fact that 620 of those yards have come on the ground may be the most important factor.
The Steelers have a talented offensive line that has afforded its franchise passer great protection most of the year, but if his targets are covered...
Bell has averaged just under 30 carries per game since that windy day in Cleveland, and over five yards per attempt; obviously that great offensive line is just as adept at opening holes as it is at keeping pass-rushers at bay.
Bell has averaged 155 rushing yards per game over the past month and became the first Steelers running back to hit the 100-yard mark in four-straight games since Jerome Bettis did it 12 years ago.
The Steelers are on the kind of roll they were on at the tail-end of 2014, when they also won four-straight to close out the season and captured their first division title since 2010.
With 2,215 total yards from scrimmage, Bell was putting the finishing touches on his first All-Pro season, before disaster struck in the final quarter of the final game, and he was lost for the playoffs with a hyper-extended knee.
The injury crippled the Steelers in the postseason, as they had no viable alternatives at the running back spot.
However, this season, Bell appears to have re-charged a Steelers offense that was quickly running out of passing options.
With just three weeks left in the 2016 regular season, the Steelers playoff fate is firmly in their own hands (something that didn’t seem remotely possible one month ago), and that may be because they decided to put the fate of the offense in the very capable hands of Bell.
When you have a running back as talented as Le’Veon Bell, sometimes football really is a simple sport.