AP NEWS

Tim Benz: Is Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell about to catch a break?

September 10, 2018 GMT

Is Le’Veon Bell about to catch a break?

He should.

I know that’s not what a lot of people want to read, but it’s true.

If Bell gets off to another slow start, the lack of on-field time for many Pittsburgh Steelers during training camp and the preseason may take Bell off the hook for the excess criticism he was setting himself up for.

As you may recall -- and based on everything I’ve heard from Steelers fans this offseason, boy, do you recall -- Bell did not get off to a good start last year after missing training camp and the preseason.

The Steelers running back only averaged 3.5 yards per carry while slogging to 180 yards over the first three games. In the passing game, he was even worse, averaging a meager 4.3 yards per reception during that span.

That’s pretty lousy for a guy who has said he wants to be paid as both a receiver and a runner.

By his own admission, Bell’s contract-related absence from training camp last year didn’t allow him to “get in sync” with the offense early last season.

As a result, many Steelers fans are ready to pounce if Bell has a similarly poor performance this September.

But the truth was that the offensive line wasn’t at its usual elite level to begin 2017. Nor was Ben Roethlisberger. JuJu Smith-Schuster had yet to be truly discovered. And Martavis Bryant’s miscues on deep balls left a lot of big plays on the field.

It was Bell who absorbed the majority of criticism, though, because he refused to sign his franchise tag tender and report for camp and the preseason.

The narrative was prewritten that a lack of camp practices and preseason games was the reason he struggled.

To a degree, as Bell allowed, that’s partly true. If similar poor results are posted by Bell this year, fan and media criticism will be even harsher.

It’ll be less accurate though, and harder to prove.

After all, are we going to be able to make Bell carry the load for any of the early offensive shortcomings when Antonio Brown has practiced and played in the preseason less than he ever has as a Steeler?

Ben Roethlisberger has yet to take a snap in the preseason, has sustained a hit that was initially feared to be a concussion, has been worked cautiously in Latrobe and may not even see a lot of reps Saturday night.

“I am not sure,” Roethlisberger said Tuesday of his playing time versus the Tennessee Titans.

“It’s a cumulative body of work that he has acquired over a long number of years here,” coach Mike Tomlin said of his QB on Tuesday. “He just quite frankly does not require as many reps to be ready to play as a younger, less experienced player.”

True. But Roethlisberger acknowledged the step up from practice.

“Everything gets a little faster. A little quicker,” the quarterback said.

It does. For him. For Bell. For a first-time play-caller in Randy Fichtner. For everyone, including Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster and Vance McDonald and Smith-Schuster. They have all missed portions of camp and preseason or the vast majority of them.

For all we know, Bell may be in better shape than all of those players given the time they’ve missed. He may have gotten in more workouts than that group, individually or even collectively.

Between strip-club visits, of course.

Are all of those guys really going to knock off the “game shape” rust and acclimate themselves to “the football speed” Bell allegedly lacked so very much a year ago in just a series or two at Heinz Field this weekend?

Please. We’re talking about a few piddly snaps here. Snaps that Bell may accumulate before the first quarter is over in Cleveland for the regular-season opener.

None of this is an effort to make excuses for Bell preemptively. He should be held accountable for his own play if it lags, as he was last year.

Instead, it is an effort to remind everyone that Bell shouldn’t be held to a different standard when so many others on offense have failed to do much preseason practice or game work, either.