In the seconds after the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 21-21 tie with the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, star running back Le’Veon Bell briefly vacated his self-imposed exile with a tweet that, in a sign of the times, included not a word, but a monocle emoji.
— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) September 9, 2018
no shade, just never witnessed a tie before… https://t.co/5xdKGlk1Hi
— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) September 9, 2018
Bell later made it clear that he wasn’t throwing shade at his team, which somehow escaped a six-turnover day against a desperate team that went winless last season with a tie. But the rest of us were already throwing enough shade at the Steelers for him.
The Browns are surely more competent than they were a year ago, but this is still a team that has not beaten Pittsburgh since 2014. It’s a game the Steelers should have won, especially if they hope to win their third straight AFC North title.
But they didn’t, and for some, it will be impossible not to wonder whether the Steelers would have won had they had one of the league’s top-three running backs. Bell continues to hold out as he expresses his displeasure with the lack of a long-term contract.
But as tempting as that might be, the performance of Bell’s replacement — second-year back James Conner — was not only encouraging, it might be game-changing.
Conner, a 6-foot-1, 233-pounder who was nicknamed “The Hammer” during his days as a star runner at the University of Pittsburgh, mixed in the efficiency and quickness of a power drill on Sunday. The slimmed-down former third-round draft pick was quick and decisive as he carried 31 times for 135 yards and two touchdowns. He ran hard, plowing through tacklers, and generally showed more elusiveness in the open field than he did at Pitt.
What’s more, Conner is an awesome match behind a ticked-off offensive line that, just days before, lashed out at Bell when it became clear he’d miss their Week 1 tilt against Cleveland. The linemen essentially called Bell selfish, and one, center Maurkice Pouncey, even said a star is born in this league every day, using the Kansas City Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt — a third-round pick a year ago who went on to become the league’s leading rusher in 2017 — as an example.
They took out their frustration on Cleveland’s front seven on Sunday, too, primarily using the gap plays the Steelers are so good at running. Conner, with his one-cut style and improved acceleration, showed good timing and pace, and energized his linemen by finishing his runs with gusto and always falling forward. He even flashed natural receiving skills, something else he didn’t do much at Pitt, catching five passes for 57 yards.
Despite his lost fumble in the fourth quarter — which led to a critical Browns touchdown — as far as replacements for Bell go, the Steelers could certainly do worse. His linemen would almost certainly agree, as it’s hard to take the exaggerated hopping celebration they did with Conner after one of his touchdowns as anything other than a passive-aggressive “eff-you” to Bell.
Still, none of this is to suggest Conner is superior to Bell. He’s not. Bell is an elite offensive weapon, a man equally capable of dissecting a team via the passing game — where he’s lethal as a receiver and route-runner out of the backfield— or as a pure runner. No back in the NFL is as patient as Bell, who has made an art form of waiting for his o-line to create a crease before exploding forward.
Bell could fit in any scheme, as zone running teams would like him, and gap teams will too, thanks to his combination of patience, vision and power. That will be attractive when Bell becomes a free agent next spring, no matter what happens this year. Even an injury won’t keep Bell from finding good, high-paying work in 2019.
However, what might be affected by this entire situation — a miserable scenario for all sides — is how much guaranteed money he can command on the open market. Bell has to work a delicate balance here, because to earn the market-busting contract he wants, he must log a healthy amount of carries when his holdout ends, but not too many; after registering 406 touches last year, something in the neighborhood of 300 would be ideal to show that he’s still got it, but still has plenty of tread left on his tires.
Problem is, the more Conner plays — and the more he plays well, like he did Sunday — the less inclined the Steelers will be to give Bell his typical workload when he returns.
There’s no doubt Bell will eventually be the man when he comes back. He’s too good to sit, even if he takes this thing to Week 12, which is the latest he could sit out while still earning the accrued season he needs to hit free agency in March.
But if Conner keeps rolling, and the Steelers start winning, there’s no way they’ll take him out of the mix completely when Bell returns. Last year, Bell rushed 321 times while Conner, the Steelers’ second-leading rusher, ran only 32 times. That scenario has already been blown up for 2018, as the Steelers will surely continue to reward Conner with touches for being around the club and doing what he’s asked, as long as he plays well.
All of that, of course, is elementary until Bell, a two-time, first-team All-Pro selection, reports to the only professional team he has ever known.
But if his holdout continues beyond this week, this much is for certain — until Bell returns, he’ll literally have millions of reasons to watch Conner closely and use the same emoji he dropped on Twitter, whether he says it’s harmless or not.
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