Reviewing Le'Veon Bell's rookie season - his 1,259 total yards from scrimmage set the team's rookie record - paints a contrasted picture. He ended up one of the team's most effective receivers, but he dropped a few catchable balls. He rushed for 860 yards, second among rookies in the NFL, but he left a lot of yards on the field too.
Bell's ceiling may be high, but he still has a ways to go until he reaches it.
Some of the blame for for those missed opportunities is fairly attributed to the fact he is still learning as a player. He will no doubt improve just through practice time reps and film study. Another factor was a change in philosophical direction. Bell has yet to run one play behind center Maurkice Pouncey, who was lost in the first game of the season with an ACL tear, while he missed the first three games himself. By that point, the Steelers had scrapped the plan to run outside zone - his experience in that scheme and his success in it at Michigan State were the reasons the team selected him in the second round of the 2013 draft.
They ran a bit of inside zone, and Bell had some success, especially by season's end. Comparing where he began to where he finished is like looking at two completely different players.
This is Bell's first career carry, coming in the first quarter of the Steelers' Week 4 loss against Minnesota. Two things that stand out immediately is he gets a great seal block from H-back David Johnson on Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway, and Vikings safety Harrison Smith, out of the frame, sees this play coming, and makes a great tackle.
While Bell doesn't appear to have a chance to break this into the open field, he ended up gaining only a yard because he bounced out wide upon breaking down in front of Smith. If Bell scrapes off Johnson's outside leg, he could lower his helmet and get a few more yards. Instead he juke-steps to his right horizontally, costing him extra yards by stopping his forward movement.
This is what coaches mean when they preach about getting north and south. It's not about breaking long runs, it's about gaining yards. The best running backs aren't necessarily the ones who can break 60 yard runs, but the ones who can take a one-yard gain and make it three yards through vision and discipline.
You see some of that again on this inside zone play against Buffalo in Week 9. The instant a running back turns his shoulers away from the line of scrimmage, he's gaining far less ground, and he's giving defenders an easier opportunity to close the gap between themselves and the ball.
Lanes will close quickly, which is why making a quick and decisive decision is critical for a runner. Note the singular. One decision. Running zone is about making one cut and getting up the field. Bell makes two of them on this play. He hesitates, makes a slight backside cut, then cuts again to the play side. In the short amount of time he spent doing that, the defense closed on him. Combined, he lost probably a step and a half of forward motion. That's maybe another two yards.
While the cornerback on the backside would take him down from behind, he still would have had more yards than the direction he chose. Moving away from Bills LB Kiko Alonso, a great run defender, should always be considered a better option. In this case, Bell ran right into him, when he might have been able to slip the cornerback's tackle off his blitz, and gotten inside left guard Ramon Foster as he reached Alonso.
Again, these plays aren't showing how Bell should have broken free for a touchdown, but the ability to get three yards on a play that might go for one yard is, over the course of a season, the difference between a great running game and a mediocre one.
If you're looking for reasons to be optimistic about Bell's future, watch him in Week 16 against the Packers. It's no coincidence the Steelers were scoring frequently and Bell was having his most success as a runner. This was Bell's first 100-yard rushing performance, and while he fumbled for the first time in this game as well, if he can duplicate his vision and anticipation, he'll be among the league leaders in rushing.
Admittedly, this particular highlight is reflective of several things, including the Packers' struggles in stopping the run. Steelers center Cody Wallace earned a three-year contract extension largely because of his performance against Green Bay. He owns LB A.J. Hawk, sealing him perfectly to the outside, giving Bell a huge cutback lane. While Bell isn't challenged at the line like he was in the other two plays, the angle of the cut he makes is what's important. Notice his shoulders are square when he cuts, and he takes the narrower angle off Wallace - not sacrificing his forward momentum. Even if Hawk could have broken off Wallace's block, or the safety was filling the way Smith was for the Vikings, Bell would have his legs under him and could have put all 245 pounds of him into the defender and fallen forward for a positive gain.
Instead, he shows a big part of what makes him special as a runner. When he breaks onto the second level, watch how he looks over to see the safety coming from his left. He gets wide enough to make the other safety miss while giving himself enough leverage to out-flank the pursuing safety. That's a deft move for a 245-pound runner. He's caught from behind, but it takes three players, including a defensive lineman, three or four yards to put him on the ground after contact.
I could watch this play all day. It was about as perfectly executed as any play the Steelers ran all year. Great backside blocking from David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert and Matt Spaeth. This is a win for all 11 Steelers.
From where Bell started to where he finished is common for rookies in the NFL. It's important to remember he finished the year strong after starting it injured. Even more importantly is the return of Pouncey as well as the most underrated part of the Steelers' lack of running success in 2013; the absence of Spaeth.
With the experience Bell earned his rookie year, the solidification of the team's offensive line and (knock on wood) health all over the offense, the Steelers look to become one of the top rushing units in the NFL. Expect results closer to Week 16 rather than Weeks 1 and 9.