So, let’s take center Maurkice Pouncey at his word that Bell will show up Wednesday. That gives him three practices and a Saturday walk-through to prepare for the season opener against the Cleveland Browns, after nearly eight months away.
How will it all shake out Sunday in FirstEnergy Stadium?
Thanks to thoughts from Steelers players, Bell’s routine and the presence of James Conner, let’s map this out.
First, the basics
Bell has to pass a physical, then sign his franchise tender. Once he checks those two boxes, he can join practice.
The Steelers will assess his football condition, then slowly work him back into the offense. Wednesday is the Steelers’ busiest day of the week for game-planning and installation. The team would likely work overtime with Bell in this area to catch him up.
The Steelers would need Bell entrenched in the offense by Friday’s practice to feel good about him playing a significant role. But, c’mon. This is an All-Pro. He’s still No. 1 on the depth chart. That shouldn’t be an issue if his health is good.
The offensive line wants to help Bell
Last year, Bell needed a few games to get his legs under him. That’s no secret. He averaged 3.46 yards per carry in Weeks 1-3. But the offense as a whole was sluggish in September, averaging 304 yards per game over those first three weeks. That would have ranked 28th league-wide over the full 2017 season.
“We can’t blame him for that,” Pouncey said of Bell’s statistical dip early. “I think the whole offense started a little slow. To point out one thing and one person just because they aren’t here is totally wrong.”
Bell’s patient running style requires him to feel out games based on what the defense is doing. That’s on him. Giving Bell rushing-lane options is not.
The offensive line is prepared to do that.
“Maybe it’s us,” right tackle Marcus Gilbert said. “Maybe we need to do a little bit better job blocking, creating holes, making sure he doesn’t get off to a slow start. He came in great physical shape last year.”
Why Bell will get the ball
A willing playcaller can get a tailback going in a hurry, and first-year Steelers coordinator Randy Fichtner sounds like he has no problem giving the ball to Bell early and often.
Asked whether he could conceivably scale Bell back Week 1, Fichtner said, “That’s a hard question because that’s Le’Veon Bell. You’d like to think he’ll be in good shape, but we have to evaluate that, conditioning, health, things like that. I think, just using him in the best way to help us win early will be the most important thing. There are things he can do that, quite frankly, most people can’t do that play his position. That’s not anything against the running backs they’ve done a heckuva job.”
Though Fichtner “no doubt” has a contingency plan in case Bell isn’t ready — James Conner as the top back — he isn’t going to overthink it. He’s got a Pro Bowl weapon and intends to use it. The offense isn’t changing under Fichtner, and Roethlisberger wants to run more no-huddle. Bell is a master at getting Roethlisberger an extra 60 yards by combing pockets of open space.
Why Bell won’t
Looming large is Conner, who could get a healthy workload in Cleveland regardless of what Bell does.
Teammates raved about Conner’s growth. In fact, guard Ramon Foster wouldn’t say Bell’s name when fielding questions about his absence, yet brought up Conner unprompted.
“I trust Conner,” Foster said. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do and I think he’ll get the job done. We know what the other guy has. But Conner has busted his ass. When a person is ready, he’s ready. And he’s ready.”
Some openly wondered whether Bell’s 13-carry, 32-yard performance in Cleveland last year was a tactful scale-back for him after he missed camp. More likely, it was Tomlin easing Bell into action on a short turnaround. If that’s in the plans again, Conner’s growth will make it an easier call.
Bell’s altered routine
Bell tries to find an edge each offseason, and he told ESPN in June his goal was to protect his joints and alter his diet.
He took up boxing as a way to avoid cutting and running before transitioning to football activities. He switched to a vegan diet late in 2017, saying he felt better and lighter after dropping meat. He decided to try it after having dinner with a friend, downing peanuts and beans for protein snacks.
“I always thought I ate healthy but there are still certain things that weren’t,” Bell said. “I think it’s helped me a lot. I’ve been feeling a lot better since I did it.”
Will this translate to the field? It might not help with change of direction, but Bell believes he’ll be coming into the year fresh.