Bell returns to backfield but will see lots of time as receiver
Le'Veon Bell already was preparing to return to the Steelers backfield once his three-game suspension ended.
Now that his punishment has expired, Bell is being welcomed back to other spots within the Steelers offense.
Bell is prepared to be used heavily in the passing game when the Steelers try to rebound from a forgettable offensive performance when they meet the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night at Heinz Field.
“I want to be a player for all aspects of the game,” Bell said Wednesday after his first practice with the team since training camp. “I want to catch short passes, down the field, whatever it may be.”
Bell never has been a one-dimensional running back. Not with 83 receptions for 854 yards on his resume in 2014, his last full regular season. But circumstances have changed since Bell had November surgery to repair the MCL and posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Tight end Heath Miller retired. His replacement, Ladarius Green, is on injured reserve. Deep threat Martavis Bryant is suspended for the season. Wideout Markus Wheaton dropped three passes in the 34-3 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, his first game back from injury. Slot receiver Eli Rogers is “very questionable” to play against the Chiefs because of turf toe.
“Last year, we started to get into more me moving around and things like that,” he said. “I want to continue to grow, and as long as I keep going out there doing what I'm doing and don't fall off from what I've learned already as they keep adding things on, I'll be fine.”
Running routes was part of Bell's conditioning while he was serving his suspension, and he quickly was incorporated into the passing drills at practice Wednesday.
“Today, it felt great,” he said. “I felt like I was hauling it in a lot easier.”
Coach Mike Tomlin admitted he will lean heavily on Bell this weekend.
“Rest assured, you're going to see Le'Veon Bell — and probably a lot of him — on Sunday,” he said.
Having Bell spread out of the backfield is another way to keep veteran running back DeAngelo Williams on the field. Williams was leading the NFL in rushing until the Eagles held him to 21 yards on eight carries. He also is the Steelers' second-leading receiver with 14 catches.
“They are two great running backs who can cause a lot of havoc,” center Maurkice Pouncey said. “We're going to see how it turns out this weekend. We've got some packages set up, and hopefully it turns out right.”
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said it makes sense for the Steelers to put their two top backs on the field at the same time.
“We're going to have them both on the field and move (Bell) out of the backfield,” he said. “We're not going to take ‘RB' off the front of his name and put ‘WR' there, but I think he's one of our best receivers.”
Roethlisberger, in fact, thinks Bell is the team's best pass catcher behind All-Pro wideout Antonio Brown. That might not be a coincidence. Bell said he tries to emulate Brown as a receiver.
“I watch him a lot,” Bell said. “I watch the way he releases and gets in and out of breaks. I've been watching him for four years. He probably doesn't even know it.
“It's not something where we run off and do (work) on the side. I've just been watching him to see how he releases in different situations and how I can put that in my game.”