Steelers RB Bell hoping to avoid injuries and sophomore slump in second season

Will Graves / The Associated Press
July 29, 2014 12:50 PM

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell runs the ball during practice at NFL football training camp in Latrobe, Pa., on Sunday, July 27, 2014. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Bell had some tightness in his hamstring during the practice. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

LATROBE, Pa. - Le'Veon Bell kept watching the tape over and over, equal parts pleased and puzzled by what he saw.

There were times during his rookie season when the Pittsburgh Steelers running back would place his hand on an offensive lineman's back and wait patiently for the hole to open.

Sometimes, one would appear. Sometimes it wouldn't, mainly because whatever sliver of daylight existed had already been swallowed by darkness while Bell was still trying to read the blocks in front of him.

Guess which plays he kept thinking about during the off-season? Not the ones that turned into one of his eight rushing touchdowns during a record-breaking year he grudgingly gives a "C-plus."

"At the time, I thought I was doing pretty good," Bell said. "Then when I started breaking it down, I realized I wasn't doing what I thought I could."

So Bell spent the spring focusing on his footwork to avoid the mincing steps that he's certain cost him valuable yardage a year ago.

His Instagram feed is peppered with video of the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Bell doing his best "Dancing With the Stars" impersonation.

During one he jabs his way through four octagons, does a pair of 360-degree spins around yellow cones, then nimbly races over rope placed about 6 inches off the ground.

The goal is to avoid outstretched hands from fallen defenders while also developing a more aggressive style.

"It's definitely going to help me with my burst and my explosion coming out of cuts," Bell said.

It might be the one thing that was missing during an otherwise productive 2013 in which his 1,259 all-purpose yards broke the club rookie record set by Hall of Famer Franco Harris more than 40 years ago.

Bell proved to be a workhorse after missing the first three weeks with a foot injury, averaging more than 22 touches in 13 games. Problem is, too often those touches didn't go anywhere. His 3.5 yards per carry ranked 38th in the league.

Part of the blame goes to an injury-ravaged offensive line that didn't really find its footing until late in the season. Yet Bell allows he also missed plenty of opportunities to make something happen because he waited too long to get going.

"If I could have got my feet down quicker, I could have gotten a lot more yards," he said. "When it's third-and-1, you've got to go get it. If it's a first-and-10 run, take your time run, let the play develop and get what you can. "

The Steelers will be asking for more from Bell in 2014 in hopes of taking some of the pressure off quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Rashard Mendenhall ran for 1,273 yards in 2010 while helping the franchise to its eighth Super Bowl.

The past three seasons have seen a steady decline in production on the ground. The Steelers finished tied for 27th in yards rushing last year, a number they believe needs to go up.

Though Roethlisberger expects to be more effective while expanding the shotgun-heavy, no-huddle offence that worked so well during a 6-2 finish to 2013, Bell knows some of that production needs to come when the quarterback takes the snap, turns to Bell and gets out of the way.

"I think this year is going to be more open," Bell said. "Guys are going to be doing more different things. I can't wait to see what this offence can do."

Even if he finds himself watching from the sideline. Bell became firmly entrenched as the starter a year ago as Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Felix Jones struggled to stay healthy or productive. He's still atop the depth chart, but he'll be pushed by free agent signee LeGarrette Blount.

The Steelers signed the burly Blount to a two-year contract during the spring after Blount ran for 772 yards (and a whopping 5.0 average) for the Patriots last year.

Bell insists he's not looking over his shoulder.

"I love coming in and competing, getting my work in," he said. "Last year for the Patriots I felt like (Blount) was the best runner over there watching on film. I'm glad we got him, I'm not arguing over it ... he's a guy that is going to help us win."

NOTES: The Steelers signed rookie free agent running back Josh Harris on Tuesday and waived offensive lineman David Snow. Snow injured his left foot on the first day of practice last Saturday.

___

Online:

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL


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