Le’Veon Bell is the NFL’s Most Overlooked Stud

To commemorate the release of New Era’s fresh Pittsburgh hat box, exclusively available at Champs Sports tomorrow, we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about the Steel City’s favorite team. Stop me if you’ve heard this before — the Pittsburgh Steelers are in a tightly-contested race for supremacy in the AFC North this season. Traditionally, the Steelers are seen as an old-school football franchise, winning through hard-nosed defense and a stout rushing attack.

Though the defense isn’t up to historical standards, the run game is, and it’s perplexing how little people are talking about Le’Veon Bell right now.

The headliner for Pittsburgh’s attack this season has been quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who broke the franchise record for single game passing yards in Week 8 and later the NFL record for passing touchdowns in back-to-back weeks. Big Ben continues to rack up the yardage week after week, and though he’s been impactful at the helm for the Steelers, his job has been made a thousand times easier by the presence of Bell.

It’s not enough to be a one-dimensional, north-south running back these days, at least if you want to stay on the field. Modern offenses need players that can get the tough yardage, beat linebackers off the edge, and catch passes out of the backfield. Bell can do all of those things and more; though fairly big compared to many backs, he has an affinity for hurdling opposing players, showcasing his athleticism and nimbleness.

After missing the opening few games in 2013, Bell didn’t exactly light the world on fire the rest of the way. There were flashes of brilliance, including a spectacular 124-yard performance against Green Bay in Week 15, but much like his 8-8 Steelers, Bell was up and down during his rookie campaign.

He’s a different man from last season. Bell is averaging a stout 4.6 yards per carry, an improvement over his rookie year by over a yard per carry. Credit is due to Bell’s offensive line — as is always the case for improving offenses — but the year of experience under his belt is a big factor in Bell’s improvement. Young running backs tend to look for the home run play too much, not knowing when to just hit the hole and take the easy yards. Bell has excelled this season due in part to better recognition.

Another big jolt to Bell’s game has come from a sleeker physique. No one would mistake Bell for a mini-mite like Darren Sproles, but he has certainly trimmed a bit of weight since entering the league. Carrying less weight allows his superior vision and footwork to thrive, and allows him to hit the holes with the slightest bit of added burst.

Where you’re seeing the biggest dividends of this small transformation is in the passing game. Bell is a real weapon for Roethlisberger through the air, clocking in with 466 receiving yards through the season’s first 10 games. That’s more yards through the air than the likes of Michael Crabtree, Eric Decker, Calvin Johnson, and even Pierre Garcon.

The most impressive part of that stat is that it’s not as if Bell is catching the type of deep passes that help pad the stats for wideouts. Utilized primarily on swing passes and dump offs, Bell’s yards are mostly a product of his own creation. Three hundred and fifty-five of his first 395 yards through the air came after the catch; seeing Bell take a short pass and burst downfield with the rock has become a recurring sight in Steelers games.

Having a back like Bell makes everyone’s job easier on offense. The offensive line trusts that if it creates a hole, Bell is going to see it and hit it, even if the play doesn’t go exactly as planned. That sentiment goes double for Roethlisberger; Bell is an asset for him in as many ways as you can imagine. Pass protection breaks down? Bell is there to pick up the blitzing defense. Receivers covered downfield? Bell is lurking for a checkdown and some guaranteed yards.

That’s before getting to the benefits of having Bell keying the rushing attack, which forces opposing defenses to respect the play-action pass. Antonio Brown has been a beast for the Steelers, and while he has no trouble separating from coverage on his own, the extra half second of hesitation caused by Bell’s threat is invaluable to Pittsburgh’s receiving core.

And oh by the way, Bell’s nearly on pace to break a franchise record for his troubles. Bell is on pace for 1,941 yards from scrimmage, which is less than 100 yards away from Barry Foster’s club record (2,034). That one might be out of reach — Foster had a mind-boggling 426 touches that year — but Bell did break the team’s running back reception record in yesterday’s loss to the Jets. John L. Williams set the bar of 51 in 1994, and Bell is on pace for 88 receptions (!) through the first 10 games.

One thing is clear for the Steelers in 2014: They are better when they put the ball in the hands of their stud running back. Bell is the straw that stirs the drink, the guy who makes everything on the offense click for the Steelers. Mike Tomlin and Co. have been willing to lean on their second-year star to carry the load, and the Michigan State product has proved up to the task.

You may not be familiar with Le’Veon Bell just yet, but rest assured that he’s not going away anytime soon.

Follow Kyle on Twitter at @kyleneubeck