Between James Conner and their stellar wide receiver, the Pittsburgh Steelers' high-octane attack shouldn't take a massive step back with Le'Veon Bell absent.
Le’Veon Bell’s continued absence from the Pittsburgh Steelers has his teammates upset and the organisation frustrated, but with Week 1 of the season already upon them, the team has no choice but to move on and figure out how to win without one of their top playmakers.
When Pittsburgh face AFC North foes the Cleveland Browns on Sunday to open their campaign, they’ll be without the ball-carrying and receiving skills of Bell.
In his place, James Conner is expected to start and get the majority of the workload in the backfield.
The second-year player saw little work last year after the Steelers drafted him in the third round, finishing with just 32 carries for 144 yards (4.5 average) and no receptions as Bell’s back-up.
This preseason though, Conner did a passable Bell impression by running for 100 yards on 19 carries, while adding 64 yards as a receiver.
“We did pretty good then, too,” Ben Roethlisberger said. “James is a year better than he was last year at this time. So I think we’re all excited for what he can bring to this offense and this team. We’ve got a lot of weapons. We’d like [Bell] out there, but we’ve got guys who can make plays for us.”
As important as Bell is to the offence – he’s averaged 128.9 yards per game in his first five years – Pittsburgh have managed to survive when he’s not been on the field during his career. The Steelers are 44-22 when he plays and 12-9 when he’s out, but their points per game are the same in both instances: 25.3.
In 2015 and 2016, when Bell totaled five games of suspension and missed another eight with a knee injury, Pittsburgh averaged 29.5 points with DeAngelo Williams as the workhorse back.
Williams racked up 1,105 rushing yards during that span, along with 53 receptions. For comparison, Williams averaged 23.1 catches in the seven seasons he played at least 13 games before joining the Steelers in 2015.
Conner can expect to see a similar type of workload as Pittsburgh have proven to be one of the few teams in the league that use their back-up running back in a similar vein as their star.
Bell, of course, is so valuable because he can do damage when lined up in other spots on the field, whether that’s out wide or in the slot. The Steelers may not deploy Conner like that, but the 23-year-old should be on the receiving end of plenty of dump-off passes and screens from Roethlisberger.
Pittsburgh also have more than enough talent at wide receiver to help ease the burden. Antonio Brown will be the usual target monster he always is, but there should be more opportunity for wideouts JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington to contribute as possession receivers tasked with the responsibility of moving the chains, rather than just picking up large chunks.
Smith-Schuster especially could see his role increase, in a somewhat similar fashion to the two games the Steelers were without Brown at the end of last season.
In the final two weeks, Smith-Schuster had 15 receptions on 17 targets for 218 yards and two touchdowns. He still stretched the field vertically with grabs of at least 46 yards in both games, but his average yards per reception was 14.5, compared to 16.2 the rest of the season.
All in all, the Steelers attack should remain extremely potent and dangerous – something that will be taken to another level when Bell eventually shows up.