If Le’Veon Bell runs for 100 or more yards Sunday against the Giants at Heinz Field, it will be the first time in his career that he’s done it in three straight games.
He’ll have his work cut out for him. The Giants haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher this season and are third in the league with 3.5 yards allowed per rush attempt.
Even if Bell falls short of the century mark, all he needs is 74 yards to pass Rashard Mendenhall for ninth place on the Steelers’ all-time rushing list.
Bell broke into the top 10 on that list last week at Indianapolis, passing Walter Abercrombie. The 24-year-old Bell, who has run for 3,476 yards, is already racking up the career milestones, but before he leaves Mendenhall in his dust it should be noted that Mendenhall did some things that Bell hasn’t done. He appeared in playoff games and helped the Steelers get to a Super Bowl.
Mendenhall left a sour taste in his final season with the Steelers by not showing up at Heinz Field when he was de-activated for a game. Without him, however, the Steelers’ two-year playoff drought that ended in 2014 would have been a lot longer.
Mendenhall’s demise in 2012 prompted the Steelers to draft Bell in 2013.
Jonathan Dwyer, who’s 27 and hasn’t played since 2014, was the Steelers’ leading rusher in 2012 with 623 yards. The Steelers went 8-8 that season and again in 2013, missing the playoffs both times. In 2012, they ranked 26th in rushing yards per game and 28th in rushing yards per carry. In 2013, they ranked 27th and 29th, respectively.
The previous time they ranked that low in either category was 2008, when they ranked 29th in rushing yards per carry. But the likes of Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, James Farrior, Casey Hampton, Ike Taylor, LaMarr Woodley and Aaron Smith all were in their prime and the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII.
The defense covered for a mediocre offense in those days. Now it’s the other way around, and the Steelers’ ability to make the playoffs for the last eight years has been directly related to their success on the ground.
During the 20-game stretch that began with their 2011 playoff loss at Denver and their Week 3 loss to the Bears in 2013, the Steelers were 8-12. They rushed for 1,848 yards as a team and averaged 3.8 yards per carry during that period.
Bell sat out the first three games of 2013 with a foot injury and made his debut in Week 4 against the Vikings at London. The Steelers lost that game to drop to 0-4, but were 8-5 that season with Bell in the lineup and narrowly missed the playoffs.
If only Bell played in the first three games of his rookie season, the Steelers might have had at least one more win in 2013 and not been hosed by Ryan Succop‘s missed field goal in San Diego on the last day of the regular season.
The “if only” sentiment has been a theme of Bell’s career. He played a 16-game season in 2014 and ran for 1,361 yards, but suffered a hyperextended knee in Week 17. The Steelers had to call Ben Tate off the street and lost 30-17 to the Ravens in the playoffs at Heinz Field.
Vontaze Burfict ended Bell’s season with eight games remaining in 2015. DeAngelo Williams took over and ran for 907 yards, but he went down with a foot injury in Week 17. That left the Steelers with Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman in the playoffs, and Toussaint’s fumble in Denver cost the Steelers a shot at the Patriots in the AFC championship game.
As much as Bell has been hurt, Mendenhall wasn’t exactly made of iron. He missed the last 12 games of his rookie season with a broken shoulder. In 2011, he had a shot at his third straight 1,000-yard season, but tore his ACL in Week 17 at Cleveland. So in each of their last three playoff seasons, the Steelers essentially have lost their top running back in Week 17. The last playoff season in which it didn’t happen was 2010, the last time the Steelers reached the Super Bowl.
Williams has a good chance of returning from his knee injury Sunday. The Steelers need him to spell Bell every now and then to keep Bell healthy. If the Steelers somehow have a playoff spot clinched and don’t need to beat the Browns at home in Week 17, Bell and Williams both should be in street clothes.
That’s probably too much to ask. For Bell to appear in his first career playoff game, he’ll have to finish the regular season healthy for the first time since 2013 and the Steelers will probably have to beat the Ravens on Christmas Day and the Browns on New Year’s Day.
Not only has Bell been unable to finish seasons, he’s been unable to start them. He’s been available for Week 1 just once in his four-year career. There was the foot injury in 2013 and suspensions in 2015 and 2016. His two-game suspension in 2015 was related to his arrest the previous year for DUI and marijuana possession. He was suspended for three games at the beginning of this season for missing several drug tests.
That’s probably part of the reason why Bell will be a free agent after this season. The Steelers are taking a wait-and-see approach, both on and off the field, before deciding if they want to commit to Bell long-term. They could wait and see for another year and apply the franchise tag. Bell will have to remain in one piece between now and the end of the season, however, just to earn the tag.
Another season-ending injury would probably end Bell’s career in Pittsburgh and put him in the same historic class as Mendenhall. That would be too bad, because Bell is capable of so much more than that.
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