Defenses adjust to limit Bell’s output in Steelers offense
If you can’t slow him down, bump him.
If you can’t stop him, grab him.
Not many teams have found a way to stop, or even slow down, Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell when it comes to catching the ball out of the backfield. So, they are bumping him and grabbing him.
“I get held a lot,” Bell said.
Teams recently have decided to play Bell differently. Defensive linemen are grabbing him out of the backfield on pass routes, preventing him from getting a free release on a screen or getting into position for a checkdown from Ben Roethlisberger.
And it has worked.
“I would (do it), too,” Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said.
Bell, who is second in the league among running backs in receptions (55), targets (62) and yards (466) behind the Bears’ Matt Forte, has managed only 35 yards per game over the past two contests despite being targeted 16 times.
A lot of that can be credited to the extra attention Bell’s getting.
“It is not something I can really prevent,” Bell said. “They are doing their best just not to let me release. It’s been happening a lot lately. I guess I have to avoid them as best as I can. There is nothing I can really do about it other than avoid them and get open.”
It’s a plan that was born out of necessity. Bell has been a dynamic weapon for the Steelers coming out of the backfield, whether it is a primary receiver or a checkdown target for Roethlisberger.
Bell twice has gained 88 yards receiving on the strength of short passes that he turned into long gains: 30 yards against the Browns and 43 against the Texans.
“He gets in the open field, and he’s making two or three guys miss,” Steelers running back LeGarrette Blount said. “Part of their game plan is to stop him from getting into the open field. They are holding him, and they don’t care if they are getting holding penalties or pass interference penalties. They just don’t want to get him in the open field where he can move.”
Against the Jets, Roethlisberger was sacked in the third quarter when Damon Harrison grabbed Bell as he was coming out of the backfield and prevented a dump-off. Harrison was called for holding, negating the sack. But according to Bell, many penalties aren’t called.
“Sometimes it gets caught, and sometimes it doesn’t,” said Bell, who acknowledged he has alerted officials. “I have to do a better job of being aware. Now that I know guys are trying to grab me, I am going to try to maneuver my way through the line of scrimmage more cleanly and get open so when Ben gets in trouble, he can find me with a checkdown.”
Holding and pass interference have been called once apiece on plays involving Bell.
“I don’t try to make too much of a deal out of it,” Bell said. “Sometimes the officials just miss it.”
Defensive linemen grabbing Bell on pass plays hasn’t been the only adjustment made to slow down Bell.
Inside linebackers have tweaked the way they defend Bell in the running game because of Bell’s deliberate movement before hitting the hole.
“D-lineman try to look at me to see where I am going,” Bell said. “Guys are trying to look, and I am playing peek-a-boo with them. You can especially see the linebacker. They never really shoot the gap against me anymore because they know I like being patient.”
After stringing together a Steelers record eight consecutive games of 100 scrimmage yards, Bell has found yards more difficult to come by. He had 58 and 69 total yards in back-to-back games, including games of 20 and 36 yards rushing.
“That’s the way they’ve been playing him, but he’s a good running back,” Blount said. “He can switch it on and off. He will keep them on their toes, and that’s why he’s in the top five in the league in rushing.”