Le’Veon Bell a no-show at Steelers’ 1st regular-season practice
The Pittsburgh Steelers held their first practice of the regular season Monday, and in one aspect, it looked the same as all of the preceding ones from training camp, minicamp and organized team activities.
Le’Veon Bell wasn’t a part of it.
The All-Pro running back, who has missed all team activities this spring and summer, did not report or practice with his teammates at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex as the Steelers began preparations for the season opener Sunday in Cleveland.
Bell has not signed his $14.54 million franchise-tag tender and would forfeit $855,000 in salary for every week he is absent.
On Sunday night, Bell posted a video to his Snapchat account that showed him in a hotel overlooking a beach. Bell has spent his time away from the Steelers training in South Florida.
General manager Kevin Colbert released a statement Monday morning in which he said he was “disappointed” Bell hasn’t signed his tender.
Guard Ramon Foster, the second-longest tenured player on the team, said he preferred to focus on the 63 players, including practice squad, who were in the locker room Monday.
Asked after practice about Bell’s absence, Foster said, “I didn’t even notice.”
Defensive tackle Cameron Heyward, one of the team’s four captains, took a similar stance.
“When Le’Veon gets here, he gets here,” Heyward said. “Until then, let’s ride.”
Center Maurkice Pouncey, elected a team captain Monday, indicated Bell will be at practice Wednesday when players return from their customary day off.
“He has no choice now, right?” Pouncey said.
Last year, when he also played under the franchise tag, Bell remained away from the team through training camp and returned to practice on Labor Day. He started in the opener but was held to 32 yards on 10 carries while playing 43 of 60 snaps. James Conner had four carries for 11 yards and was on the field for eight snaps in the opener.
Conner, entering his second season, received the first-team reps in training camp and the preseason. He would be the starting running back until Bell’s return.
“If we start off with James, we’ll be fine either way,” Foster said. “He’s a guy that has worked his butt off. He’s a guy that has made strides and has made us confident in him. If he gets the start, we roll with him. No disrespect to (Bell), but we’ve got to move.”
Despite his slow start last season, Bell was the team’s workhorse at running back. His 406 touches led all NFL players, and he was on the field for 85.3 percent of the Steelers offensive plays. No other NFL running back played more than 77 percent of his team’s offensive snaps.
“Last year he didn’t need any (practice), and he was the best in the league,” Pouncey said.
The Steelers, though, are prepared to move forward with Conner and backups Stevan Ridley and rookie Jaylen Samuels.
“James has been in a great spot this entire camp,” Foster said. “He’s the guy who has been taking all of the reps. One way or the other, we’ll be fine in the run game, and I’m going to focus on those guys over there.”
Fielding repeated questions about Bell wasn’t how Steelers players wanted to open the season, particularly in the wake of a 2017 season that featured almost weekly off-the-field issues.
“Nope, nope, it won’t be a distraction,” Heyward insisted. “We are seasoned for that.”
Heyward said it is up to the team’s leaders to make sure the focus doesn’t waver from preparations for the Browns — and each subsquent opponent.
“Him not being here does not affect how a defense or offense should look,” Heyward said. “I know and understand he’s a great player, but that doesn’t mean we can’t execute well and we can’t do the things we want to do. We have a heck of an offensive line, a heck of a quarterback and wide receivers all around and an up-and-coming running back.
“I just think we can still execute what we want to do if he’s here or not. It’s just about him jumping on the journey with us.”
When Bell reports, the Steelers can request a two-week roster exemption. The Steelers did that last season, and Bell wasn’t activated until the eve of the season opener. The exemption allows the Steelers to not include Bell on the 53-man roster until he is activated.
“If he comes on this journey, he comes on the journey,” Heyward said. “We’ll put him in the backseat, strap him up and let’s get ready to go.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.