Steelers rookie RB Bell to get long look with 1st-team offense
Don’t look back, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman. Somebody might be gaining on you.
That somebody is second-round draft pick Le’Veon Bell, who in only two weeks of training camp is making a serious push to be the Steelers’ starting running back Sept. 8 against Tennessee.
Bell’s strong and instinctive running has so pleased coach Mike Tomlin that Bell will take snaps with the starters in Saturday night’s preseason game against the Giants even though that unit will be on the field for only 10 to 12 plays.
“I think he has earned that. But don’t be surprised to see him play after those guys are out of the game as well,” Tomlin said Thursday. “He, like a lot of guys, we need to get a lot of exposure to.”
Tomlin plans to play everyone who is healthy, and that includes all four quarterbacks, although Ben Roethlisberger will play only a series or so.
Asked what Bell has done most to distinguish himself, Tomlin said, “How you run the ball speaks for itself.”
Bell’s response: “I’m going to go out there and see what I can do.”
The Steelers made it a priority to upgrade the running game after finishing with the team’s second-fewest yards rushing during a 16-game season a year ago. Among the changes were drafting Bell, a workhorse back with a diversified skill set, and implementing a zone blocking system that could channel more runs to the outside.
They also decided to go with a young and athletic offensive line, one that has former second-round picks Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert at tackle, Ramon Foster and David DeCastro at guard and Maurkice Pouncey at center. Adams and Gilbert switched sides after camp began, and Adams will start at left tackle Saturday in what is looking to be a permanent move.
The first look at the running game changes arrives Saturday, and Tomlin did not want to wait until the backups were on the field to get Bell going. The other rookies, including first-round pick Jarvis Jones, must wait a little longer but will play significant time. That includes wide receiver Markus Wheaton and safety Shamarko Thomas.
Jones is beginning to make the kind of special plays — such as getting a hand on passes — the Steelers are looking for as they replace five-time Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison. Now, Tomlin said, Jones needs to make them during games.
“He’s doing some nice things. He needs to stay on the field more, but when on the field, it’s obvious that he’s productive and aware,” Tomlin said, referring to some of the minor health issues that sidelined Jones briefly during spring practices and again in camp. “I’m not displeased with his progress whatsoever. I just want to keep him on the field and keep the process of improvement going.”
Jones, competing with Jason Worilds, is satisfied with his progress.
“I think I’ve been doing fine; every day is a learning curve for me, trying to gain as much knowledge as I can,” Jones said. “I’m in a good position with the playbook. I’m still learning it and still making errors.”
Landry Jones, the former Oklahoma quarterback and a fourth-round pick, struggled to connect at times during spring practices, and he has yet to stand out during camp as he backs up Roethlisberger and Bruce Gradkowski. The Steelers hope to see more in game action.
“This is a guy that threw for 16,000 yards (16,646) or whatever in college. So the throwing of the football or the mechanics of the position, particularly in a practice setting, is not going to be foreign to him,” Tomlin said. “But playing a game in a stadium with a live rush and those things, I think we’re going to find out a lot about where he is after Saturday night.”
He won’t be alone.