Le’Veon Bell said the time would come when the Steelers would have to ride him like a thoroughbred.
As the Steelers (7-4) turn toward the home stretch following their bye week, they’ll jockey for position in a crowded AFC North field. Their chance of hitting the finish line first depends greatly on Bell’s ability to grind out yards behind the big horses up front.
On Monday night, Bell sprinted out of the gate against the Tennessee Titans. He ran the ball six consecutive times for 28 yards — only 8 yards fewer than what he amassed in a 20-13 loss at the New York Jets in Week 10.
The stage was set for a spectacular finish. As the Steelers fell behind by 11 points late in the third quarter, they handed the ball to Bell to carry them down the stretch.
“Le’Veon made their defensive backs pay for trying to tackle him,” left tackle Kelvin Beachum said. “We made a commitment to run the ball in the second half.”
Bell overran the Titans to finish with career highs in attempts (33) and yards (204), including 132 yards in the second half of a 27-24 victory that has the Steelers holding the most wins in the division.
“At the end, those guys were sliding off a little bit, and they got tired of tackling,” Bell said. “Running the ball is like a boxing match, like body punches. It might not be pretty, but we wore those guys down during the course of the fight and eventually knocked them out.”
The offensive line, anchored by center Maurkice Pouncey, gained some redemption in the fourth quarter after surrendering five sacks of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
“I love running the ball, but the offensive line loves running the ball more than me,” Bell said. “They kept moving guys off the ball, so they get a lot of credit.”
But credit Bell for his persistent, determined running in the final 15 minutes.
“We hustled to the line, and we could see they didn’t want (it) anymore,” right tackle Marcus Gilbert said.
Said Pouncey: “Bell was hitting the holes hard. We wanted to be the reason why we won this game. When you’re winning the battles up front, it makes you want to get up on the line and do it again.”
Now, Bell will have to do it alone. The Steelers released disgruntled running back LeGarrette Blount on Tuesday after he left the field before Monday’s game ended.
Blount’s dismissal didn’t overshadow the best performance of Bell’s career. He added two receptions, but a resurgent ground game helped wide receiver Antonio Brown and tight end Heath Miller to combine for 14 catches for 162 yards.
“The things he does — catching the ball, running the ball with power and finesse — is really impressive and fun to watch,” Roethlisberger said.
When Roethlisberger was piling up record-setting numbers, the running game took a back seat.
“As a defense, you know you have to pick your poison,” Bell said. “We all set a goal (of rushing for 150 yards) and achieved it.
“The offensive line wanted to prove its dominance.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected].