After James Conner’s impressive Week 1 debut, do the Steelers even need Bell going forward?
Le’Veon Bell has been arguably the best running back in the NFL over the past two seasons. In 27 games he has totaled nearly 4,000 total yards and 20 touchdowns while helping Pittsburgh become back-to-back AFC North champions.
It’s no secret that Bell has been unhappy with his contract situation for years, and after once again failing to agree on a long-term contract, Bell finally had enough, which began his regular season holdout.
This holdout is one of the NFL’s biggest storylines thus far this season, but the reality is that Bell will show up at some point — it’s just a matter of when. If he doesn’t report before Week 11, which would give him six games under contract, then he would forfeit his eligibility to become a free agent next offseason.
There is no chance Bell gives up his chance to hit the open market, so he will show up sometime before this deadline. But that raises an important question: do the Steelers really need him?
Maurkice Pouncey also issued this reminder: “A star is born every year in the NFL. Did anyone know Kareem Hunt would be an All-Pro before last season? If James Conner didn’t have cancer, he’d have been a first round pick. Just watch him.” #Steelers— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) September 5, 2018
The offensive line for the Steelers sure doesn’t think so, or at least that is what they have said publicly. Pouncey believes James Conner is more than capable of being the workhorse back for the Steelers.
Through one week, his hunch looks fairly accurate as Conner totaled 135 rushing yards, 57 receiving yards, and two touchdowns in his debut as the Steelers starting back. Conner also led the Steelers with six forced missed tackles, including four on rushing plays, which ranked tied for sixth amongst running backs in Week 1.
Conner wouldn’t be the first running back to play exceedingly well in Bell’s absence. In 2015, when DeAngelo Williams filled in for Bell, he started 10 games and was very productive. Williams had 907 rushing yards on 4.54 yards per carry, including four games of over 100 rushing yards. He also provided a reliable receiving threat out of the backfield with 40 catches for 367 receiving yards.
Conner might not be able to equal the production of Bell exactly, but he very well could turn himself into an excellent NFL running back this season behind a Pittsburgh offensive line that PFF had ranked fourth coming into the year.
PFF PIT Steelers (@PFF_Steelers) July 18, 2018
PFF also found that the Steelers offense doesn’t skip a beat without Bell. They actually have a better yards per play when Bell isn’t on the field and only move down one spot in expected points added per game.
With that being said, it’s not going to matter who the Steelers running back is if Ben Roethlisberger plays the way he did last week. Roethlisberger had a pedestrian 60.2 Pro Football Focus rating in Week 1 as a result of his three interceptions in the 21-21 tie against Cleveland.
Roethlisberger has a history of having a few horrendous games a season. Last year in the regular season game against Jacksonville he had five interceptions, which had him to question his ability to play quarterback in the NFL. Going back even further to 2016, he had a game against the Philadelphia Eagles where he completed just 54% of his passes, and even though he only had one interception, he played far worse than the stats suggest. The Steelers ended up losing that game 34-3.
In both instances, he bounced back and led the team to victories in the following week. In 2016 he had a five-touchdown performance in the Steelers 43-14 win over the Chiefs, while in 2017 he completed 68% of his passes for 252 yards and a touchdown in a 19-13 road win against the undefeated Chiefs at the time, so we should give Roethlisberger the benefit of the doubt that he will get his play back to a high level.
Roethlisberger getting back to his normal level of play will ultimately decide their fate. Assuming he does, the Steelers should be able to rattle off a few wins with three of the next four games at home, keeping them right in the mix for an AFC playoff berth.
Should the Steelers make it to the playoffs for the fifth straight year, having Bell would be ideal, but they have proven it isn’t a necessity. In their 2016 run to the AFC Championship, Bell averaged 119 rushing yards per game on 5.5 yards per carry. It’s even more impressive considering he only had six carries for 20 yards in the AFC Championship game before leaving the game with an injury.
Behind an excellent offensive line, Conner will be able to fill in admirably for Bell and help the Steelers offense remain one of the top offenses in the league.
Bell is definitely still a better player than Conner, especially in the receiving game where Bell had just three receptions less than Julio Jones. However, the Steelers have proven in the past they can succeed without Bell and will do it again this season if Roethlisberger can still play at a high level.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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