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The Case For Letting Le’Veon Bell Walk

The Eagles’ balanced running attack was a key part of their Super Bowl run. The Steelers were Bell or bust. Now they are falling behind the new trend for running backs, and it will cost them.

It looks like the Steelers will place the franchise tag on Le ?Veon Bell for the second straight year at some point today. Let ?s see if he takes it. Or better yet, let ?s see if he ?s worth it.

Bell may be one of the best (if not the best) backs in the game, but the Steelers should hesitate before they invest a large chunk of change to him again. The defense has holes that Bell ?s salary could help fill, and the Steelers are relying on an outdated model for their running attack. Across the league, we ?re seeing teams with two or three good running backs out producing those with one elite back. The superstar halfback is an endangered species.

According to, the Steelers spent over $13 million in cap space on running backs last year. That was the second most in football, only behind the Jaguars. At first glance, Bell lived up to his salary, finishing third in the league in rushing yards with 1,291. He likely would have won the rushing crown had he not sat out the last game of the season.

Despite that, the Steelers finished 20th in rushing yards overall. Why? Because their running game was Bell or bust.

Here’s a look at how unbalanced the Steelers ? running game was against the best in the league. Nine of the top 10 teams in rushing yards last year made the playoffs. The only exception were the Cowboys, who probably would have made the postseason had Ezekiel Elliott not been suspended.

When you compare the Steelers ? run game to the best in the league, you can see exactly how lopsided it was.

Stats courtesy of Click to enlarge.

Five of the top 10 did not have a 1,000 yard rusher. Six teams got less than half of their yardage from their featured runner. Meanwhile, the Steelers, Rams, Chiefs and Bills each had at least 57% of their running game provided by one back. Those four clubs went winless in the postseason. The other five went 9-5 in the playoffs. This year ?s Super Bowl featured arguably the two most balanced rushing attacks in the Eagles and Patriots. Is it a coincidence or the start of a new mindset?

No running back accounted for more of his team ?s rushing yards than Bell did for the Steelers last year. Seven Steelers wideouts had more receiving yards than their number two back, James Conner, had on the ground. Conner didn ?t even finish with 10% of his team ?s rushing yards. Bell was the only Steeler to pick up 200 yards on the ground. The Jaguars had five players eclipse 200 rushing yards. The Cowboys and Eagles had four. The Panthers, Vikings, Bills, Rams and Patriots had three each. 86 players league wide eclipsed 200: an average of roughly 2.7 per team.

Bell also had the vast majority of the Steelers ? carries last year. Again, the Steelers relied on one back far more often than the league ?s best running teams.

Stats courtesy of Click to enlarge.

The Steelers gave Bell an extra 10% of their rushing playing this past season. Three out of every four running plays went to #27. Seven of the top 10 teams gave the ball to secondary runners roughly half the time, if not more. 105 rushers league wide had at least 33 carries last year. Again, Bell was the only one with that many for the Steelers.

That ?s problematic because Bell did worse as the game progressed last season. According to the Washington Post, he averaged 4.3 yards per carry for attempts 1-10 each game last season, good for 21st best in football. That number dropped to 4 yards a pop for carries 11-20, which was 13th in football. The Post recognized nine runners with enough touches on attempts 21 and above to qualify. Bell was last with 3.6 yards per carry, which was even worse than the shattered remains of Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore.

But running the ball is not Bell ?s only forte. He is also one of the most dangerous receivers in the game, but there are a couple guys on the free agent market who might be able to give comparable production in the passing game for a fraction of the price. Here ?s how Bell stacks up against the three free agent backs who have good reputations as pass catchers.

2017 stats listed. Click to enlarge.

McKinnon and Burkhead don ?t match Bell ?s sheer amount of receptions, but they put up comparable catch rates and average more yards a grab. Hyde could be a breakout candidate if he lands in the right system.

Conner could have been a breakout candidate, too, but once that tag is placed on Bell, everything changes. The free agent market is dead, Conner goes back to riding pine and the Steelers resume praying that their guy stays healthy through another 400+ touch season.

There ?s something to be said for not putting all of the eggs in one basket, especially when that basket already has a drug suspension on his record, has threatened retirement and is rapidly approaching the age where all running backs fall off a cliff. The Steelers ? window of opportunity is probably only open another year or two (or at least until Roethlisberger retires). Bell will still be a Pro-Bowler during that time, but his contract might cost the Steelers an All-Star at a different position. Is it worth twice the salary for potentially 10-20% more production?

The defense has two glaring needs: an inside linebacker and a safety. It would be nothing short of a miracle if Ryan Shazier ever laces up again. We got a look at how toothless this defense is without him down the stretch last year. Mike Mitchell is a $8 million safety who talks like a $12 million safety but plays like a $2 million dollar one. The Steelers need to go into camp with new guys and not just drafted rookies. They’re in “win now” mode. Tom Brady eats rookie safeties alive.

Simply put, the Steelers were one and done last postseason because the defense gave up 45 points to Blake Bortles. They can make a run at a Brian Cushing, Lamarcus Joyner or Ricardo Allen this season to make sure that doesn ?t happen again, or they can sign Bell.

The Steelers can Frankenstein a makeshift Bell out of buy-low free agents, Conner and a lottery ticket rookie or two. They can ?t stretch this defense any thinner. Their choices are between paying one back gobs of money to carry a mediocre running game, or shoring up the team ?s actual weaknesses. They’re going to make the wrong choice.

Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.

9 Comments on The Case For Letting Le’Veon Bell Walk

  1. Harry Schade // February 20, 2018 at 8:24 AM //

    Well done analysis. Hope the Steelers read this.

  2. Kelechi Anozie // February 20, 2018 at 8:26 AM //

    There’s much to consider if you let someone like Bell walk. Much of the Steelers offense is catalyzed by Bell. Secondly, if you are going to replace Bell with someone like Conner, the idea in this case is that Conner is not only going to stay healthy, and that Conner’s skillset has diversified to the point that he is capable of doing half the things Bell did; and I’m not only talking about running the ball (ie: pass blocking and receiving the ball.

    Thirdly, if you look at the free agent market for defense, Brian Cushing is a 31-year old linebacker that was suspended 10 games for using illegal substances. Lamarcus Joyner is decent in a way but can be a liability against big receivers because of his height 5’8, lastly Ricardo Allen is at best an above average S (81.4). The point I’m making is that for any of these people noted, the Steelers can likely find better in the draft, and/or they don’t have to pay top dollar to get them; therefore they can afford any of these guys and still keep Bell (assuming that Mitchell is release).

    All in all, when it comes to letting Bell go, you have to consider how his absense will not only change the dynamics of this team offensely, but defensively as well. Moreso, I’m unsure if the defense the way it is, is equipt to have to deal with Bell, if ever the case came that they had to face him. So it’s a double-edge sword so-to-speak when it comes to the Bell situation.

  3. They did an admittedly unscientific poll on the Trib or PG.
    1/3 wanted Bell signed to an extension.
    1/3 wanted Bell signed to just the franchise tender.
    1/3 wanted to let him walk and sign some defensive help.

    This has really been a polarizing subject.

  4. I don’t think the Steelers should let Bell walk simply because their current offense is too entirely dependent on him being there. The trend that other teams is following is a better blue print going forward, and putting the franchise tag on Bell only commits the team to one more year.

    We talk about windows with respect to winning championships. This core group of Steelers built around Big Ben and Bell has a short shelf life. It would be foolish at this juncture, on a team with so many needs on the defensive side of the ball and no real answers on the F.A. market to address all of those needs with $15 million or so saved by not signing Bell.

    Although the Steelers will address a lot of its D needs in this years’ first couple of draft rounds, they will still need help from free agents to fill that gap where rookies mature into starters. I don’t think that the Steelers can get a pair of running backs, an inside linebacker with speed capable of being their defensive signal caller, and a cover safety all on $15 million dollars. They should try and address their most immediate need with a free agent, that is Shazier’s replacement, and let everything else proceed as Ben’s career winds down. The return of James Conner to good health and resigning Stevan Ridley should give them enough depth to compete in the same manner that the Eagles did.

  5. Daquido Bazzini // February 20, 2018 at 3:38 PM //

    I can go either way on keeping Bell.
    He seems intent on huge money, so that’s a concern as far as the cap goes.
    This team needs defensive help in a big way.
    That is something that has to be addressed if they are going to go deeper into the playoffs.
    You can almost bet that if they let him walk, he will run right into the arms of a rival opponent.
    It never fails.
    The Browns are the first guess with a ton of room under the cap.

    • Bob Stover // February 20, 2018 at 4:30 PM //

      With Haley as the new O.C. in Browntown, it’s almost certain that they would make a strong pitch for him if the Steelers let Bell walk.

      • Kelechi Anozie // February 20, 2018 at 4:49 PM //

        What you noted Bob is exactly what would happen and quite frankly, this defense is not equipped to face against a running back like Bell.

        From everything I seen in FA and other teams, the only running backs that has Bell’s skillset are Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott; aside from these two, if the Steelers try and find grab anyone else, they’d be sorely downgrading.

        So in all, it would be to their benefit to sign Bell to a long-term deal and end this saga.

        • Bob Stover // February 21, 2018 at 9:46 AM //

          Well, you have to question Bell’s intentions in this matter. As you recall, last year, after his agent had announced that Bell and the Steelers had agreed on a long term deal, Bell reneged. So, are the Steelers actually negotiating with a guy who wants a long term deal that is not contingent on him simply being the highest paid running back in the NFL?

          If Bell is serious about a long term deal, I’d still go no more than three years and a mutual option with a buyout at the end. The shelf life of RB’s in the NFL is very short, and his injury history is at least a factor in any negotiation.

        • What you ?re all not realizing is that Bell has one of the best offensive lines (especially in run blocking) in the NFL. I can assure you any moderately good RB would do well behind our OL.

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