The Right Choice: Steelers to Let Le’Veon Bell Walk, Will Not Use Transition Tag

As Kevin Colbert announced yesterday, the Pittsburgh Steelers have decided not to apply the transition tag or the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell. The move comes as a bit of a surprise because the Steelers had seemed intent on playing hard ball with Bell.

They have chosen not to, and that decision might signal that Art Rooney II has mastered one of the one of the most important tests of his tenure as Steelers president.

Our third and likely final free agent focus profile of Le’Veon Bell reveals why.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell free agent,

Le’Veon Bell departing the grid iron at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: EPA, via the New York Post

Capsule Profile of Le’Veon Bell’s Steelers Career

Here’s the digest version based on our 2017 and 2018 free-agent profiles of Le’Veon Bell.

In his rookie training camp, Ed Bouchette boldly compared Le’Veon Bell’s debut to that of Franco Harris. Journalists such as John Stiegerwald were skeptical, yet Jim Wexell tracked Bell’s rookie performance against Walter Peyton’s as a rookie.

Six years later, Le’Veon Bell has set regular season and playoff rushing records that neither Harris, Jerome Bettis, nor John Henry Johnson could set.

A lot of signs indicate yes, however the fact that Bell has played only one complete season and been hit with two suspensions raises doubts.

The (Theoretical Case) for the Steelers Retaining Le’Veon Bell

The Steelers decision seems clear, but the point of this exercise is to make the strongest case possible for keeping Bell so here goes.

  • On paper there’s a case for the Steelers resigning Le’Veon Bell to a long-term deal.
  • There’s also a case for using the transition tag on him.

No one inside or outside of Pittsburgh questions Le’Veon Bell’s talent and his ability to perform at peak level at least in the short term. With James Conners and Jaylen Samuels on the roster, bringing Bell back would give Pittsburgh a more potent running back tandem than the Willie Parker/Rashard Mendenhall duo they envisioned in early 2008 (with Samuels standing in for Mewelde Moore.)

  • Even if the Steelers can’t sign Le’Veon Bell to a long term deal, the case for putting the transition tag on him is strong, in theory.

As one Steelers scribe privately remarked when Bell’s 2018 holdout became permanent, “It would basically dare any other NFL team to improve on the offer the Steelers made last season.” It would also give the Steelers the chance to match that offer. Theoretically, the Steelers could also match the offer and then trade him to someone else.

And a trade could bring the Steelers a pick in the 2019 NFL Draft whereas any compensatory pick would only come in 2020. With a strike or lockout looming, a draft pick in 2019 helps the Steelers far more than one in 2020.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning or Transition Tagging Le’Veon Bell

The Steelers were prepared to commit an eight-figure salary cap to Le’Veon Bell in offers made in 2017 and 2018. Yet, James Conner delivered excellent production (although not ball security) in 2018 and he’ll only make $844,572 in 2019.

  • The Steelers can use the difference to bolster their defense, which needs the help.

Beyond salary cap dollars and sense, not having Le’Veon Bell probably cost the 2018 Steelers the playoffs. Bell’s behavior and the gap between his actions and words widened in 2018. Do the Steelers need another potential locker room distraction? Ah, no.

  • Using the transition tag on Bell carries risk as well.

First, the transition tag ties up valuable salary cap dollars that can’t be used while the Bell situation sorts itself out. Forget Bell signing his tender so that the Steelers can trade him. The Steelers could try to “match and trade” but would need to complete the trade on the same day to avoid a salary cap hit.

Finally, if the Steelers tag Bell then decline to match, they get nothing.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell

During the 1990’s, it often felt like the Steelers served as the NFL’s farm team. Pittsburgh would develop players like Chad Brown or Yancey Thigpen only to see them leave as free agents. The Rooneys promised things would change with a new stadium. Heinz Field opened in 2001, and since then the Steelers have done a remarkable job of keeping their own players since then.

Retaining key players has been critical to the Steelers overall success in the 21st century and critical to their victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

  • But you can’t keep everyone. Knowing when to let a player walk is just as important as knowing when to keep him.

For a long time it seemed like Art Rooney II and the rest of the Steelers brass was determined to use the transition tag to exert some control over Le’Veon Bell’s fate. While that’s understandable, it doesn’t make sound football sense.

In a perfect world, Le’Veon Bell would have signed the deal his agent had agreed to with the Steelers. But Bell declined. The Steelers gave it a second go around, and Bell sat out all of 2018 while trolling his team at every chance he got.

The Steelers are going to let Le’Veon Bell walk and that is the right decision.

 

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Le’Veon Bell to Sit Out 2018 – The Le’Veon Bell-Steelers Soap Opera Ends. Finally.

It’s over. Thank God. The Pittsburgh Steelers-Le’Veon Bell soap opera ended today as the 4:00 pm deadline came and went without Le’Von Bell signing his franchise tender. Now Le’Veon Bell cannot play for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018, and he’ll forfeit the entire 14.5 million he was due under the franchise tag.

  • The move also effectively ends Le’Veon Bell’s career as a Pittsburgh Steeler.

In football terms both sides lose here, at least in the short term. While James Conner has excelled in Le’Veon Bell’s absence, the drop off from James Conner to Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels is large. Today the Steelers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders; a serious injury to James Conner immediately downgrades them to a team that, with a few breaks, could win perhaps win a playoff game.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell hold out,

Le’Veon Bell departing the grid iron at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: EPA, via the New York Post

In addition to losing the money, Le’Veon Bell loses a shot at winning a Super Bowl in 2018. While there’s little doubt that some team, awash with salary cap space will offer Le’Veon Bell more than the Steelers were able (or willing) to pay, money won’t buy Bell a championship.

Sure, Le’Veon Bell could find himself with the Eagles or Patriots in 2019. Even the Browns, who have gobs of cap sapce, are broaching respectability, seem to have a legit quarterback and could become formidable by a soon as next year. Ah, but what if the biggest offer comes in from say, the Oakland Raiders….?

  • But the post-Pittsburgh Steelers portion of Le’Veon Bell’s story remains to be written, and others will write it.

While yours truly wishes Le’Veon Bell would have come back to play out his franchise tag, I’m also glad the fat lady has sung on this soap opera. The Le’Veon Bell-Steelers story has simply become tedious.

The Le’Veon Bell Soap Opera Hour – a Tedious Affair

Sure, the Steeles misjudged things when they used the 2nd Franchise tag.

But the Steelers sincerely desired to sign Le’Veon Bell to a long term deal. While the Steelers reported offers might not have reached the levels that Franchise Running Backs of yesteryear enjoyed (i.e. Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk), they were ready pay Bell far and above his peers.

As for Le’Veon Bell? Yes, Bell said he would hold out (he also said he’d retire) if he got a 2nd franchise tag. He’s also said a lot of other things, some of them even wrote right side up.

  • And that has been the most aggregating plot line of this entire soap opera.

And at almost every stage, Le’Veon Bell’s actions have contradicted his words. Yet that hasn’t stopped both fans and much of the professional press, from hanging on Le’Veon Bell’s every word, acting as if the Burning Bush itself is speaking.

Did Le’Veon Bell show up to start the season as he promised he would? No. Nonetheless, “Sources” indicated he’d show up during the season’s 1st six weeks, and people believed them. Except he didn’t show up. Then Bell himself told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler he was going to show up at the bye week. Everyone bought it, until he didn’t show up.

  • Then of course Bell was waiting to darken doors on the South Side until the trade deadline passed. It passed and Bell remained in Miami.

And while we’re at it, did anyone really believe those trade rumors about Le’Veon Bell? I don’t know about you, but those always struck me as more mischief than anything else.

Thankfully, all of that stops today. Sure, they’ll be talk about the Steelers using a third franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell or even the transition tag (again, do does anyone believe that the Steelers really told Le’Veon Bell they were going to transition him in 2019?) But all indications are the Steelers are ready to move on.

  • And, while that’s the right move on the part of Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert, that’s a shame.

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell are probably the three men most responsible (well, you’d have to add Cam Heyward and make it a quartet) for the turn around the franchise has seen since starting 2-6 in 2013.

  • It would have been perfect for Pittsburgh to see the Killer Bees standing on the dais, hoisting Lombardi Number Seven together.

That will never happen now. So be it. Finally we can accept it and move on.

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Mike Tomlin Should Call Le’Veon Bell and Ask “Do you want to win a Super Bowl?”

This time tomorrow, mercifully, the Pittsburgh Steelers-Le’Veon Bell soap opera will be over. But before then, there’s one more move that should be made:

  • Mike Tomlin should call Le’Veon Bell and ask “Do you want to win a Super Bowl?”

That’s a simple question, and one that carries a “Yes” answer for anyone who ever laid their hands on a Nerf football as a kid, barked out a bogus snap count, and faded back in search of connection on one of those “2 completions for a 1st down.”

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

Mike Tomlin should call Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Yahoo! sports

This is a serious proposal. OK. Mike Tomlin’s eyes will never grace the pages of Steel Curtain Rising, let alone this article.

  • But this is still and idea worth executing idea.

As Jim Wexell suggested, Le’Veon Bell likely feels backed into a corner. Although he did threaten a hold out, he also indicated numerous times that he’d be playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018. Yet he’s missed milestone after milestone, and quite possibly feels like sitting out is his only face-saving option.

  • And, there’s the business side of this equation to consider too.

Le’Veon Bell has already forfeited 8 million dollars in change, and “only” stands to make about 6.5 million if he signs his franchise tender. 6.5 million dollars for less than a half a season is a lot of money even by NFL standards, but it pales by comparison to what Bell things and probably can make next spring as a free agent.

  • All it takes is a torn ACL or blown Achilles and Le’Veon Bell’s 2019 signing bonus drops exponentially.

And that’s why Mike Tomlin should call Le’Veon Bell, and ask, “Hey Le’V, we want to win a world championship? Do you want to help?”

Because that’s one bargaining chip the Steelers still have, because money can buy you a lot of things, but it can’t buy you a Lombardi Trophy or Super Bowl ring as Daniel Snyder and Neil O’Donnell can attest.

It is true that if James Conner continues to play at this level and remains healthy, the Steelers strictly speaking don’t need Le’Veon Bell.

  • The operative phrase above is “If James Conner stays healthy.”

As mentioned here last week, James Conner’s bruising running style carries costs. Moreover, while Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels are not bad backups, but at this point I’d still rather have the 2010 or 2011 edition of Isaac Redman as my number two. Mike Tomlin vowed to run Willie Parker until the wheels fell off, and as noted here in August, during the Tomlin era the Steelers have struggled to keep RB 1 and RB2 healthy until season’s end.

  • Viewed this way, Le’Veon Bell signing his franchise tender even at this late date is a win-win for both sides.

The Steelers get an immediate upgrade to the depth behind James Conner. Le’Veon Bell pockets 6.5 dollars, or more than his entire rookie contract. He has the luxury of getting into shape, and the security that Mike Tomlin no longer has a need to ride him into the ground.

And, he makes a legitimate AFC Championship contender even stronger.

Is there a Precedent for This Sort of Thing…?

Word is of course, that Le’Veon Bell has already decided to sit. Who knows where that is coming from, but the report surfaced on ESPN and now everyone and his brother is reprinting it like Gospel.

That’s a same, because having James Conner and Le’Veon Bell would give the Steelers their strongest, deepest backfield since 2004 when Bill Cowher had Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley at his disposal.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Redskins, Jerome Bettis Redskins

Jerome Bettis rushes for 100 yards vs Redskins in 2004. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Perhaps the better analogy would be 2005, when Duce Staley played little, save for a start against Green Bay that helped ensure a win. A win the Steelers needed to make into the playoffs en route to victory in Super Bowl XL.

  • Sometimes stories yield their own symmetry.

The last time the Steelers played and defeated the Carolina Panthers was in 2014. The game cost the Steelers the services of Jarvis Jones, then seen as an up and comer. It didn’t take long for the Steelers to hit the Red Phone to James Harrison.

But it wasn’t only Mike Tomlin that picked up the phone. If reports are correct, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel called Harrison and encouraged him to come out of retirement.

Mike Tomlin should not only call Le’Veon Bell, but get Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Cam Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey and perhaps Ramon Foster to follow suit. A chorus of “Hey Le’Veon, do you want to win a Super Bowl” just might do the trick.

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James Conner’s Rushing Style Carries Costs, So Steelers Should Welcome Bell Back. IF He “Volunteers”

Every week James Conner seems to push LeVeon Bell’s holdout further and further into irrelevancy. And so he should. With the season half over, not only does no one in Pittsburgh miss Le’Veon Bell, but James Conner is arguably Steelers offensive MVP.

So it is hardly a surprise that Le’Veon Bell’s “Fairwell Miami” tweet which again tantalized an end to his holdout barely moved the needle in Steelers Nation, save for the mandatory regurgitation from the content aggregation sites.

James Conner, Myles Garrett, Steelers vs. Browns

James Conner stiff arms Myles Garrett. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.

But no matter how fed up Steelers fans are (and should) be with Bell’s antics, Steelers Nation would be wise to welcome Le’Veon Bell back should he “volunteer” to return to the South Side next week.

  • And that’s because James Conner’s rushing style carries consequences.

If you’re a true Steelers fan, a “Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust” purist there’s no way you can watch James Conner’s bruising rushing style and not feel a surge in your Black and Gold blood pressure.

  • Just how hard does James Conner rush?

Well per Jim Wexell’s reporting on Pittsburgh 247, in the Steelers win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, James Conner ran so hard he knocked both linebacker Nick Vigil and strong safety Shawn Williams out of the game.

While no true fan of the game ever roots for another player to get injured (well, maybe except for Vontaze Burfict) Steelers fans like tough running backs who rush hard and dish out as much or more than they take.

If pressed to tell the truth, Steelers fans from Generation X and above would probably confess to being just as upset that the ’94 AFC Championship loss robbed them of a chance to see Barry Foster run full speed at Deion Sanders as they were at losing a shot at One For the Thumb.

  • Ah yes, Barry Foster the man who still holds the Steelers single season rushing record.

The man who once boasted about accelerating before getting tackled, just so that he could inflict a little more pain on the defenders. Barry Foster, the man whose body fell apart and was out of football 2 years after that record setting 1992 season.

OK. Maturity and motivation issues were as a big a factors as durability in the rapid end to Barry Foster’s career, but Foster missed significant time to injury in ’91, ’93 and ’94.

  • Being a runner who craves contact as Conners must also carries its costs.

And the cost is the increased risk of injury. As mentioned here back in August, during the Tomlin era the Steelers have rarely reached the playoffs with both RB Number 1 and RB Number 2 healthy. (Kinda makes you understand a little bit better why Franco Harris ran out of bounds instead of taking a hit.)

  • Who knows if Le’Veon Bell will show up on the South Side in time to sign his Franchise Tender?

From a pure business perspective, Le’Veon Bell has more to lose than to gain by showing up. But let’s fancy the idea that a chance to win a Super Bowl does interest Le’Veon Bell enough to play out the final 7 games of the 2018 season.

If he does then he certainly must take a back seat to James Conners, but Le’Veon Bell would provide exceptional depth and insurance against injury that neither Stevan Ridley nor Jaylen Samuels could provide.

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Why Steelers Beat Browns with Bell – Le’Veon Bell’s Ball Security Is Under Appreciated

The Pittsburgh Steelers would be 1-0 today if Le’Veon Bell had shown up and reported for work as expected. The reason is that, if the Steelers missed anything from Le’Veon Bell on Sunday, it was Le’Veon Bell’s ball security skills.

Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. It IS a strange thing to read from a writer who has already done the cyberspace equivalent of taking pen to paper to argue that James Conner shouldn’t be scapegoated for the Steelers 21-21 opening day tie against the Browns.

But if you read on, you’ll see that my argument isn’t any sort of hypocritical double-speak or some writer’s equivalent of buyer’s remorse, but rather simple numbers. And numbers don’t lie.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell ball security, Le'Veon Bell fumble

Le’Veon Bell’s ball security is highly under appreciated. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

Steelers History Shows Highlight Reels Only Tip of Iceberg

When we talk about the all-time great players, we tend to focus on highlight-worthy qualities.

For example, when you watch any film of Steelers Hall of Fame middle linebacker, Jack Lambert, it’s usually of Lambert crashing into a running back, yelling at an official or leveling a wide-receiver who made the mistake of trying to catch a pass in his area.

As it pertained to the leveling of that wide-receiver and Jack Lambert’s area, the reason No. 58 was often in position to wreak havoc was because when he dropped back into pass coverage, there were very few linebackers of his era (or any era) who had the athleticism and football-awareness to get the depth necessary to put himself in the position to get those kill-shots he was so famous for.

  • As it pertains to this era, when it comes to Steelers’ superstar running back, Le’Veon Bell, his all-around skill-set may be unequaled.

Whether it’s his patience right before choosing a hole on running plays or his aptitude for being an extremely skilled receiver out of the backfield, few can match Le’Veon Bell’s abilities. Including ones we don’t often focus on…

Le’Veon Bell’s Ball Security Skills Highly Underrated

Like the rest of us, Le’Veon Bell is fully-aware of his greatness which, unfortunately, has led to the current hold out with the Steelers–his training camp absence  has spilled-over into the regular season.

As a consequence, second-year running back James Conner was moved up the depth chart and started the Steelers’ Week 1 contest against the Browns last Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio.

  • For three-plus quarters, Steeler fans may have been saying “Le’Veon who?” as Conner displayed very Bell-like attributes, while tallying close to 200 total yards from scrimmage.

Sadly, midway through the fourth quarter, and with Pittsburgh holding what seemed to be a safe 21-7 lead, James Conner ignited a Browns’ comeback by fumbling at the Steelers’ 17-yard line, a play that led to a one-yard touchdown.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles in 4th quarter of Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

The Browns ultimately tied the game at 21, a score that held all the way through to the end of overtime. As I wrote on this very site earlier in the week, while James Conner’s gaffe was critical, there were other  Steeler transgressions (such as Ben Roethlisberger’s in ability to sync with Antonio Brown and Big Ben’s 5 turnovers) that contributed greatly to the Week 1 sports equivalent to kissing your sister.

Having said that, however, one has to wonder if Le’Veon Bell’s presence on the field would have prevented a Brown’s comeback, and that’s because Le’Veon Bell’s presence likely would have included much better ball security. Why?

  • Because Bell’s superior skills aren’t just limited to patience, receiver-like hands and, oh yes, his ability to pick up blitzes (he may be the best in the business at that last one).

Of all of Le’Veon Bell’s awesome attributes,  perhaps the most underrated is his ability to hold onto the football, this despite  having an insane workload through five seasons in the NFL.

  • Including regular season and postseason games, Bell has 1,635 career touches (1,310 carries and 325 receptions), yet he’s only fumbled eight times.
  • That means Le’Veon Bell has a fumble percentage of 0.5%

“So What????” you scream, “Running Backs are supposed to hold on to the damn ball in the first place! And now you want to pat this greedy brat on the head for just doing the bare minimum expected of any NFL running back?”

Yeah, I get it. Simply holding on to the ball does seem like a rather mundane accomplishment to praise. So let’s look at how Le’Veon Bell’s fumble percentage compares to that of other great Steelers running backs:

Steelers Running backs fumble percentages, Le'Veon Bell, Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis

Regular season fumble percentages of Steelers running backs

Looks a little more impressive now, doesn’t it? Not does Le’Veon Bell lead the pack, he leads it by a mile.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and John Henry Johnson, the Steelers 3 Hall of Fame running backs, all have fumble percentages well in excess of Bell’s. Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Parker fumbled the ball 1.1% and 1.3% of the time, or more than twice as often as Bell.

  • Merril Hoge and Barry Foster, fumbled the ball almost four times as often as Le’Veon Bell.
  • Dick Hoak, aka “Mr. Steeler”fumbled the ball 2.4% of the time or almost five times as often as Le’Veon Bell

Frank Pollard and Rocky Bleier fumbled the ball 2.8% and 3% of the time, or nearly 6 times as often as Le’Veon Bell.

In fairness, seven of Le’Veon Bell’s fumbles came over the previous two seasons, which clocks him in at 0.9%  but since we’re being fair, he also had a combined 742 touches. And that’s still far below the 2% fumble rate which is the average of the subgroup ahead.

  • No matter how you break things down, Bell takes extremely good care of the football.

Does this mean James Conner doesn’t take care of the football? Not at all. It just means he hasn’t logged enough reps to earn such a reputation at this point of his career.

  • Le’Veon Bell obviously has.

People talk about discipline in football and think they can point to certain behaviors away from the field as a sign that a player lacks it — Le’Veon Bell often frustrates Steeler fans with some of his “moves” away from the gridiron.

But what requires more discipline and attention to detail than being able to hold onto the football when multiple defenders are trying to wrest it from you 35 times a game?

Le’Veon Bell does many things well on the football field, and if he was in the lineup last Sunday, chances are, the Steelers would be 1-0.

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Le’Veon Bell’s Holdout Leaves Steelers Running Back Depth Chart in Familiar, Precarious Position

Le’Veon Bell’s absence and refusal to sign his franchise tender has been discussed to death in Steelers Nation. But there’s one story element that has largely been ignored: Le’Veon Bell’s holdout leaves the Steelers running back depth chart in both a familiar and precarious position.

Last week, while heading down to La Boca for the Buenos Aires edition of the #SteelersWorldWide photo, Agustin Esposito asked me, “¿No te parece con Nix, Conner, Ridley, Samuels, Nix y Bell y los Steelers estan quedando con demasiados corredores?”

James Conner, Steelers vs Bengals, Jesse James, Leveon Bell's holdout

James Conner 4th quarter run in 2017 Steelers win over Bengals. (Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Fansided.

Since most of you don’t speak Spanish, Agus was asking if by keeping James Conner, Stevan Ridley, Jaylen Samuels Roosevelt Nix and Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers weren’t carrying too many running backs.

  • My response was no, the Steelers weren’t keeping too many running backs.

The answer surprised Agus and he asked me to explain. And I pointed out to the Steelers of starting Ben Tate, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Dri Archer and Jordan Todman in all too recent playoff games.

  • The Steelers locker room is rallying around James Conners, who has had a strong preseason.

Maurkice Pouncey even argued that were it not for his injury history, former Pitt Panther James Conners would have been a first round pick. I don’t follow college ball, but Pouncey went to a major NCAA program, so he has the credentials to speak on the subject.

James Conner ran very well in his limited opportunities in 2017, and he authored a very strong preseason. And if Conners comes out and rips off a 100 yard game against the Browns and then again against the Chiefs, momentum will build in the Steelers Nation for Kevin Colbert to simply lift the tag and let Le’Veon Bell walk (which he won’t do.)

  • But what if James Conner gets hurt?

Stevan Ridley brings the Steelers solid experience, and his resume is that of a respectable number 2 NFL running back. But could he carry the load over the long or even medium term? Jaylen Sanders started the summer slow, but finished preseason as one of the player whom Mike Tomlin termed as “leaning into the tape.”

That probably earned Sanders a spot in the roster, although the suspicion here is that had Bell reported on Labor Day, Jaylen Sanders very well might have joined Olasunkanmi Adeniyi on IR. Sanders will be on the roster and likely get a helmet on game day against the Browns.

Which is good. Expect the rookie’s pass catching skills to be in demand with Vance McDonald out, and an injured Xavier Grimble starting opposite Jesse James in the number 2 tight end spot.

Pro offenses have evolved, and the Steelers roster composition has evolved with it. The days of carrying 5 running backs and a fullback are probably over. Moreover, when Ben Roethlisberger is your quarterback, investing so much salary cap and roster space in your running back depth chart makes even less sense.

  • But carrying only 3 running backs plus a fullback is cutting things a little too close.

As observed here last month, the Steelers have struggled to keep their top two running backs healthy for an entire season during the Mike Tomlin era. In 2008, the Steelers lost Willie Parker for a spell, then lose Rashard Mendenhall. Fortunately they had Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell to shoulder the load.

In 2010 Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman remained healthy for the entire season, with Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer only seeing spot duty carrying the ball.

  • Both of those season ended with the Steelers going to the Super Bowl.

That remains Pittsburgh’s goal this year, but even if James Conner performs above expectations, Le’Veon Bell’s holdout greatly reduces the Steelers ability to adsorb an injury at running back.

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Le’Veon Bell No Shows @ Steelers Practice. Time to Get Pissed, But Not to Panic

Fans arguing for running back by committee shift for the Steelers offense might get their wish as Le’Veon Bell no showed at Steelers practice. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert issued the following statement:

We are disappointed Le’Veon Bell has not signed his franchise tender and rejoined his teammates. Coach Tomlin and the coaching staff will continue to focus on preparing the players on our roster for our regular season opener on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.

Colbert’s statement is a long way from “Franco who?” but it also underlines that the Steelers really have form of compelling Bell to rejoin the team. Per Jeremy Fowler’s report on ESPN, neither the Steelers nor people close to Bell is surmised by the All Pro running back’s no show, and given Bell’s erratic behavior this off season perhaps they shouldn’t be.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell Holdout,

Le’Veon Bell was absent for the Steelers 1st practice. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Time to Panic? No. Time to Get Pissed? Yes.

Le’Veon Bell has broken rushing records which neither Hall of Famers Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, and John Henry Johnson nor Super Bowl record setter Willie Parker could touch. Among NFL players with 60 or more games, Le’Veon Bell leads them all in total yards from scrimmage.

  • Despite those on-the field achievements, Le’Veon Bell has managed to make himself one of the most unpopular players in recent Steelers history.

And today’s no-show at practice reveals why. While Bell had threatened to retire if the Steelers hit him with the franchise tag again and hinted at holding out all season, he later clarified that he intended to report the regular season. And when the Bell and the Steelers failed to reach a long-term deal, Bell issued the following statement:

Steel City Blitz’s Ben Anderson is speaking for a large swath of Steelers Nation, including many of those who scoffed at the idea of running back by committee.

Let’s clarify one thing. Unlike Hines Ward in 2005, Barry Foster in 1993 or Mike Merriweather in 1988, Le’Veon Bell has absolutely zero contractual or legal obligation to play for the Steelers. He’s not under contract, and has the option of giving up the 14.5 million franchise tender in exchange for sitting out the year. Some, such as James Harrison have advised Bell to do just that.

  • But if that were Bell’s intent, he should have said so all along.

So Steelers fans have every right to be upset with Le’Veon Bell. When an athlete makes it clear he’s not giving any hometown discounts and that he’s firmly focused on the bottom line, such mercenary attitudes can rub us the wrong way, but at least the athletes are being honest.

When the talk a good game a la Neil O’Donnell about money not being their sole motivating factor and then behave differently, that’s something else. With that said, there is no reason for fans to panic at this point at least.

Yes, Le’Veon Bell’s value to the Steelers offense is undeniable:

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell statistics, Le'Veon Bell stats, Le'Veon Bell Steelers offense

Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense.

James Conners, Stevan Ridley, and Jaylen Samuels showed a lot of promise, but expecting the trio to make that up simply isn’t realistic. And with Vance McDonald‘s status unknown, there’s no obvious replacement as a check down option for Ben Roethlisberger when Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington are covered downfield.

But given Le’Veon Bell’s erratic behavior, he could merely be intent on enjoying a full Labor Day weekend before reporting or perhaps he’s planning on reporting in before the Browns game soon enough that he can collect his $852,000 game check but late enough that Mike Tomlin will not play him.

  • In order to accrue a full season of seniority, Le’Veon Bell must report for at least 6 weeks before the end of the season.

To get to that point, Bell will have to forfeit nine million dollars in change. And for all antics thus far, Le’Veon Bell hasn’t shown himself as someone willing to leave that much money on the table. Yet.

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Le’Veon Bell No Shows @ Steelers Practice. Time to Get Pissed, But Not to Panic

Fans arguing for running back by committee shift for the Steelers offense might get their wish as Le’Veon Bell no showed at Steelers practice. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert issued the following statement:

We are disappointed Le’Veon Bell has not signed his franchise tender and rejoined his teammates. Coach Tomlin and the coaching staff will continue to focus on preparing the players on our roster for our regular season opener on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.

Colbert’s statement is a long way from “Franco who?” but it also underlines that the Steelers really have form of compelling Bell to rejoin the team. Per Jeremy Fowler’s report on ESPN, neither the Steelers nor people close to Bell is surmised by the All Pro running back’s no show, and given Bell’s erratic behavior this off season perhaps they shouldn’t be.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell Holdout,

Le’Veon Bell was absent for the Steelers 1st practice. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Time to Panic? No. Time to Get Pissed? Yes.

Le’Veon Bell has broken rushing records which neither Hall of Famers Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, and John Henry Johnson nor Super Bowl record setter Willie Parker could touch. Among NFL players with 60 or more games, Le’Veon Bell leads them all in total yards from scrimmage.

  • Despite those on-the field achievements, Le’Veon Bell has managed to make himself one of the most unpopular players in recent Steelers history.

And today’s no-show at practice reveals why. While Bell had threatened to retire if the Steelers hit him with the franchise tag again and hinted at holding out all season, he later clarified that he intended to report the regular season. And when the Bell and the Steelers failed to reach a long-term deal, Bell issued the following statement:

Steel City Blitz’s Ben Anderson is speaking for a large swath of Steelers Nation, including many of those who scoffed at the idea of running back by committee.

Let’s clarify one thing. Unlike Hines Ward in 2005, Barry Foster in 1993 or Mike Merriweather in 1988, Le’Veon Bell has absolutely zero contractual or legal obligation to play for the Steelers. He’s not under contract, and has the option of giving up the 14.5 million franchise tender in exchange for sitting out the year. Some, such as James Harrison have advised Bell to do just that.

  • But if that were Bell’s intent, he should have said so all along.

So Steelers fans have every right to be upset with Le’Veon Bell. When an athlete makes it clear he’s not giving any hometown discounts and that he’s firmly focused on the bottom line, such mercenary attitudes can rub us the wrong way, but at least the athletes are being honest.

When the talk a good game a la Neil O’Donnell about money not being their sole motivating factor and then behave differently, that’s something else. With that said, there is no reason for fans to panic at this point at least.

Yes, Le’Veon Bell’s value to the Steelers offense is undeniable:

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell statistics, Le'Veon Bell stats, Le'Veon Bell Steelers offense

Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense.

James Conners, Stevan Ridley, and Jaylen Samuels showed a lot of promise, but expecting the trio to make that up simply isn’t realistic. And with Vance McDonald‘s status unknown, there’s no obvious replacement as a check down option for Ben Roethlisberger when Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington are covered downfield.

But given Le’Veon Bell’s erratic behavior, he could merely be intent on enjoying a full Labor Day weekend before reporting or perhaps he’s planning on reporting in before the Browns game soon enough that he can collect his $852,000 game check but late enough that Mike Tomlin will not play him.

  • In order to accrue a full season of seniority, Le’Veon Bell must report for at least 6 weeks before the end of the season.

To get to that point, Bell will have to forfeit nine million dollars in change. And for all antics thus far, Le’Veon Bell hasn’t shown himself as someone willing to leave that much money on the table. Yet.

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Running Back by Committee? First Let’s Try Steelers Keeping RB1 & RB2 Healthy for a Full Season

The Steelers failure to reach a long-term deal with Le’Veon Bell has prompted many fans to call for Pittsburgh to lift the franchise tag, let Le’Veon Bell walk and rely on running back by committee.

Sounds feasible on paper. (Actually it doesn’t.) But even if it, there’s a problem:

  • During Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers have struggled to keep their 1st and 2nd string running backs healthy.

The tendency took root in 2007 and has continued almost unabated since then. In 2007, Mike Tomlin vowed to run Willie Parker until “the wheels fell off.” The wheels fell off in week 16, forcing the Steelers to start Najeh Davenport in the playoffs with Verron Haynes coming off the couch as a backup.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers running back injuries

Le’Veon Bell injured in the 2014 season finale vs. Bengals. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP, via SportsNet.ca

In 2008 the Steelers planned to use both Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall. A week 3 Willie Parker injury led to Mendenhall’s first start in week 4, where Baltimore broke his collar bone. Fortunately, the Steelers had solid running back depth with Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell filling the void until Parker’s return.

  • The Steelers kept their top two running backs relatively healthy in 2009 and 2010, with Willie Parker only missing a handful of games in ’09.

The Steelers streak continued in 2011 until Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the season finale against Cleveland, as Isaac Redman started in the playoff Tebowing in Denver (for the record, Redman rushed for 121 yards on 17 carries.)

In 2012 the Steelers employed a variant of running back by committee, rotating carries and starts between Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall. Injuries contributed to this situation, but Mike Tomlin also wanted one of the trio to establish himself as the starter. None of them did.

  • The Steelers unhealthy running back syndrom returned with a vengeance in 2013.

Rookie Le’Veon Bell injured his Lisfranc in Latrobe, leaving Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Felix Jones as the running back committee. Problem? LaRod Stephens-Howling’s Steeler career ended after 8 touches and Isaac Redman was already playing with injures that would end his career before Halloween.

In 2014 the Steelers made a wise disciplinary move in cutting LeGarrette Blount, but that forced them to sign Ben Tate after Le’Veon Bell’s pre-playoff injury. In 2015 injuries and suspension limited Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams to 5 join appearances, and DeAngelo Williams season finale injury at Cleveland forced Pittsburgh to start Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman in the playoffs.

Any plans the Steelers had to spell Le’Veon Bell with DeAngelo Williams in 2016 went out the window when Williams injured his knee in week 6, limiting the tandem to 4 games together.

And of course last season the Steelers only opted to give James Conner a handful of carries, but an injury against New England in week 14 forced the Steelers to sign Stevan Ridley two weeks before the playoffs.

Calk it up to fate or chalk it up to mistake, but Mike Tomlin cannot seem to kept his top two running backs healthy, which doesn’t bode well for a shift to running back by committee. Or does it?

Counterpoint: Could Running Back by Committee Be the Cure?

In On Writing, Stephen King advises authors against plotting out stories in favor of putting characters in situations and then following them to their conclusion. King’s lesson is relevant to sports blogging, because sometimes your conclusions can morph into something else as you write.

  • This is one of those times.

Mike Tomlin has seen his running backs suffer injuries early in the season (Parker and Mendenhall in ’08, Bell and Redman in ’13, Bell in ’15 and Williams in ’16.) But the most devastating running back injuries have occurred late in the season (Mendenhall in ’11, Bell in ’14, Williams in ’15, Bell in the 2016 AFC Championship).

Both the laws of attrition and laws of probability would suggest that running back by committee could mitigate these dangers.

Moral of the Story? Better Running Back Depth In Order

In the final analysis, I’m not ready to join the chorus calling for the Steelers to rescind the franchise tag and part ways with Bell. This tweet sheds a little light on my thinking:

That isn’t to say that the Chuck Noll’s offenses struggled to run the ball with Frank Pollard, Earnest Jackson and Walter Abercrombie. They didn’t. Nor could Mark Malone and David Woodley provide the type of air support that Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown provide today.

  • But Le’Veon Bell offers more to the Steelers 2018 offense than would a modern day equivalent of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie.

And James Conners, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels have yet to prove they’re modern day equivalents of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie. But perhaps they can provide the type of quality and quantity of depth at running back behind Le’Veon Bell that the franchise hasn’t enjoyed since 2008….

…You remember, the season that ended at Super Bowl XLIII.

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Steelers Draft Jaylen Samuels in 5th Round, Adding Versatility with North Carolina Running Back

The Steelers drafted Jaylen Samuels in the 5th round, their second of two fifiths, adding the North Carolina running back and adding to the versatility of their backfield.

  • North Carolina used Jaylen Samuels as a H-Back, where he primarily caught passes out of the backfield.
Jaylen Samuels,

Steelers 5th round pick Jaylen Samuels at North Carolina. Photo via JackJaguars – WordPress.com

Several draft reports, including NFL.com, had Jaylen Samuels listed as a tight end, but In Pittsburgh, the Steelers plan to use him exclusively as a running back. However, Steelers running backs coach James Saxon assured that “He’s done a lot of different jobs. He’ll get an opportunity once he gets here to do a lot of different jobs.”

Jaylen Samuels video highlight reel backs up Saxon’s assessment:

As a senior, Samuels caught 76 balls for 597 yards and scored four touchdowns through the air. Jaylen Samuels added 12 rushing touchdowns backed 407 yards rushing. What role will Saxon play in Pittsburgh? As Saxon envisions it:

He will be able to play on third down, catch ball and create matchup problems for linebackers. In this game today, on third downs lot of teams are using a sixth DB to come in the box and cover an athlete, and that’s what he is.

Draft analysts speculated that the Steelers would seek Le’Veon Bell’s replacement in the 2018 NFL Draft. Jaylen Samuels as a fifth round pick, would not figure to be that man. He joins James Conners behind Le’Veon Bell, and will have to win a spot in training came against veterans Fitzgerald Toussiant and Stevan Ridley.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Jaylen Samuels.

 

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