(Photo: Jason Bridge, USA TODAY Sports)
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been surrounded by a wealth of talent during his 11 seasons with the Steelers. As a result, he has led the Steelers to three Super Bowls and two titles.
Roethlisberger was confident that potential Hall of Famers Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward would elevate their games in must-win situations. Bettis would grind out the tough fourth-quarter yards, while Ward gathered in clutch third-down throws with the game or season on the line.
Now Roethlisberger leans heavily on Le'Veon Bell.
“I want to make sure I'm always available,” Bell said. “When guys look at me to make a play, I want to be the guy who makes that play.”
Bell has developed into the playmaker coach Mike Tomlin envisioned when he was taken in the second round of the NFL Draft in 2013. The Michigan State product has silenced the naysayers, who suggested the Steelers laid down a bunt instead of hitting a home run when they selected Bell over Green Bay's Eddie Lacy.
“I heard it a lot last year,” Bell said of the comparisons with Lacy. “I hurt my foot and there were a lot of things going on when they picked Lacy.
“Coach Tomlin stood up for me and said if, ‘We had to do the draft all over again, I still take 26.' For him to have that confidence in me, it's all that matters.”
The second-year running back is perhaps the most versatile offensive threat in the NFL. If numbers are a barometer, then Bell's 1,924 yards from scrimmage — 1,231 rushing and 693 receiving — are reflective of how much the Steelers have leaned on him.
“I have been fortunate to play with a Hall of Famer in Jerome,” Roethlisberger said. “When I came in (the NFL), to have a leader and a player like that was so beneficial. (Bettis) was one of the greatest running backs of all time.
“I think that Bell is on his way. He's still young, but the things he can do in all three phrases of the game — to run, to catch and to block — are some of the most special things I've ever seen a running back do.”
Roethlisberger said Bell's versatility has enabled the Steelers offense to become more flexible. Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Parker put up impressive numbers, but Roethlisberger didn't rely on them as much as he does Bell.
“He's grown fast, and we feel we can do anything with him,” Roethlisberger said. “We feel like we can run him as many times as he feels he can. We feel that with a guy like him, we can do a little bit of everything.”
Even though Roethlisberger was concerned about Bell's workload, he continues to feed him the ball. Bell had 32 touches for 235 yards — including 26 rushes for 185 yards — in a 42-21 win Sunday over Cincinnati at Paul Brown Stadium.
It was a performance that earned him AFC Offensive Player of the Week on Wednesday. Also, he joined Walter Payton as the only players in league history to record at least 200 scrimmage yards in three straight games.
“That says a lot about his production over the last three games,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “He's a big strong back that breaks tackles, and he's very patient. He is the guy that can go from stop to start very quickly.”
Bell is likely to carry the load Sunday when the Steelers face NFC South leader Atlanta. The Falcons are last in total defense: 32nd in pass defense (287.8 yards) and 21st against the run (122.9).
Offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum and guard Ramon Foster helped ignite a ground game that wore down the Bengals in the fourth quarter. With the Bengals keying on Bell, Roethlisberger's used play-fake to launch a 94-yard touchdown pass to receiver Martavis Bryant.
“(Bell) has become one of the best backs in the league because he's willing to learn and willing to listen,” Beachum said. “He's a humble guy who has a great work ethic. He's showing the fruits of his labor.”
Bell has become part of the MVP conversation along with Dallas running back DeMarco Murray.
Steelers guard Ramon Foster paved the way for Foster while both were at Tennessee. He said Bell may the most complete back in the NFL.
“I would say professionally, Bell is the best running back,” Foster said. “I haven't seen a running back with his patience and vision. It seemed unorthodox at first, but he's great at faking out linebackers at the second level. He's able to catch the ball, and make yards that way.
“As long as we keep Ben standing up and make holes for Le'Veon, we've got a shot to win games.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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