Perhaps Dec. 11 should be a holiday in Pittsburgh.
Exactly 11 years before Bell’s performance for the ages on Sunday, Bettis ran for 101 yards and two touchdowns in a 21-9 win over the Bears at Heinz Field.
Both games were played in the snow, and while it’s hard to pick one run that defined Bell’s day on Sunday because there were so many of them, that 2005 game will forever be remembered for the Bus running over Brian Urlacher for a touchdown.
The Steelers had lost three in a row, and that Bettis-powered win over the Bears is what started their storied run to Super Bowl XL. The Steelers won four straight games to get into the playoffs and four more to become the first No. 6 seed to win a Super Bowl.
That Urlacher pancaking is about all I’ve seen from that game, because I didn’t watch it. I was sort of disgusted with their three-game losing streak, so as Robin Williams put it in “Good Will Hunting,” I decided to “see about a girl” instead of watch the Steelers that day.
Being an out-of-market Steelers fan, I couldn’t DVR the game because it wasn’t shown in New York. The closest I got to the game was following the score online.
There wasn’t much to see there with that lady friend. We dated on and off for a few years, but that was about it. So as time went on, part of me regretted my decision to blow off that game. It’s included in any highlight clip of Bettis’ career, like looking into a snow globe that encased a pastoral winter scene and Bettis’ signature playing style rolled into one.
Since then, I’ve never missed a Steelers game by choice, and the number of Steelers games I’ve had to miss can be counted on one hand.
Like Bettis in 2005, Bell helped snap a losing streak that was going to sink the Steelers’ season. Only he didn’t just spark the winning streak, he’s kept it going every step of the way. His career-long string of 100-yard rushing games has coincided with the Steelers’ four-game run.
Despite being suspended for the season’s first three games, Bell is fourth in the NFL with 1,053 rushing yards. He has 3,830 career rushing yards, ninth on the Steelers’ all-time list according to Pro Football Reference. If he runs for 160 yards Sunday at Cincinnati he’ll jump to fifth, passing Rocky Bleier, Barry Foster, Dick Hoak and Frank Pollard.
If he doesn’t pass all four of those players on Sunday, he almost certainly will before the end of the season.
That’s assuming, of course, that Bell gets out of Paul Brown Stadium in one piece.
That’s the elephant in the room this week. Will Vontaze Burfict play clean?
Very few Steelers fans need to be reminded that Bell’s seasons have ended with injuries against the Bengals in each of the last two years. In 2014, he took a hit from safety Reggie Nelson that hyperextended his knee when he went out for a pass in Week 17. In 2015, the case was uglier. Burfict tore up his knee on a tackle and appeared to celebrate the hit.
Because of those injuries, Bell has yet to play in a postseason game.
Is it too much to ask for Bell to get on the bus unscathed after the game? The Steelers have paid their retribution, and then some, to the Bengals for Carson Palmer‘s knee injury in the 2005 wild-card game at Cincinnati.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said in his weekly press conference that among the ways Bell has improved since his rookie year is his conditioning and “protection of himself.”
That’s good to hear. Admit it, considering Bell’s injury history you hold your breath every time he carries the ball and gets lost in a pile of bodies. It’s the same feeling we had watching Troy Polamalu after he missed 11 games in 2009, because Polamalu did for the Steelers defense what Bell is doing for the Steelers offense right now.
Since Tomlin often says that he doesn’t live in his fears, don’t expect the Steelers to lighten Bell’s load on Sunday. The Bengals are allowing an average of 4.5 rushing yards per game, tied for 26th in the league. If Todd Haley decides that handing the ball off to Bell 30 times gives the Steelers (8-5) the best chance to beat the Bengals (5-7-1), then that’s what’s going to happen.
Expect Roosevelt Nix to introduce himself to Burfict on some of Bell’s runs. DeAngelo Williams also should help the Bell preservation effort. He’s likely to return after missing five games with a knee injury. It will be nice to see in him there for a series or two.
If the Steelers beat the Bengals and then beat the Ravens on Christmas Day at Heinz Field, they would win the AFC North and make the playoffs for the third straight year. Playoff berths are expected in Pittsburgh and the ultimate goal is nothing short of a championship. But if Bell suits up for a playoff game, he and the Steelers will have something to celebrate.
Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets