by Cian Fahey
The Pittsburgh Steelers selected Le’Veon Bell in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft to be their feature back. The Steelers running back position had been a glaring weakness ever since Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in 2011. Mendenhall never really recovered from his injury, while Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer proved why they were role players in the first place.
Because Mendenhall signed with the Arizona Cardinals, and none of the other backs on the roster figured to be bell cows, Bell was expected to carry a heavy load from Week 1 of his rookie season. His debut was delayed until Week 4 because of a foot injury suffered during preseason.
Against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, Bell had 16 carries for just 57 yards and four receptions for 27 yards. That's not the production of a high quality NFL runner, but that doesn't mean that there wasn't a marked difference between Bell and the other backs that have played for Pittsburgh this season.
Of Bell's 16 carries, half went for two yards or less. Short gains such as those won't go away for the Steelers anytime soon. Their offensive line's inability to consistently push the pile or create running lanes will always hamper what the running backs can do. However, Bell is already making an impact in that area.
This play ultimately goes for two yards, but it should have been stopped for a two yard loss. As Bell is handed the ball, linebacker Chad Greenway is directly in front of him. Greenway is in perfect position to take Bell down for a loss and got to that position so quickly because he wasn't blocked. Bell is very quick in thought and movement as he spins away from Greenway to keep his momentum going towards the line of scrimmage. He is held up long enough for safety Andrew Sendejo to get in position to make the tackle at the line of scrimmage.
Sendejo, like Greenway before him, is in a good position, but Bell quickly changes direction again. Bell doesn't escape, but he does enough to gain forward momentum and turn a tackle at the line of scrimmage into a two yard gain. On this play alone, Bell created four yards that the Steelers weren't getting from their other backs consistently.
Of Bell's eight runs for two yards or less another one came on a play where he turned a loss into a positive gain, four times it was poor blocking or excellent defensive play that limited Bell to a short gain, once he scored a touchdown from the one yard line, and only once a bad decision from Bell led to a short gain. Bell was consistently making the most of the play in front of him when he received the ball. It's no coincidence that one of Bell's touchdowns showed off these aspects of his play.
At the Minnesota 8-yard line, the Steelers came out with three tight ends to the right side and one receiver to the left. The Vikings kept two safeties deep and two of their linebackers deeper than expected off the line of scrimmage. The Vikings were daring the Steelers to run off the weak side of their formation, as they have just one defensive end to that side with a nose tackle playing directly over the center. That leaves them with four defenders immediately in front of the Steelers' five blockers to the right of the center.
Because Will Johnson, who was lined up in the middle of the three tight ends, is responsible for Chad Greenway who lined up just outside of the right tackle, the Vikings get penetration immediately after the snap. As Bell receives the ball, Greenway is in his face. Bell doesn't panic, and while he is taking the ball from his quarterback he is already in the process of cutting outside to avoid the defender.
As Bell glides outside the initial defender, he has his eyes on Harrison Smith in the second level. This is vitally important because his early recognition of the alignment in front of him allows him to set up what will eventually be a touchdown run.
Bell doesn't continue to glide towards the sideline after avoiding Greenway. Instead, he straightens to attack the gap in front of him. This draws Smith towards the center of the field, changing his angle towards Bell, when Bell plants his foot and turns towards the sideline.
Because Bell draws Smith away from the sideline and Heath Miller is able to push his assignment backwards, the Vikings safety is taken completely out of the play and Bell has an easy run to the pylon. It seemed like a relatively simple play, but if Bell had immediately looked to run off tackle then Smith would have had an opportunity to stop him at the line of scrimmage. Both Bell's quick thinking and quick feet allowed him to escape outside.
Bell isn't overly explosive, he doesn't have that LeSean McCoy or Jamaal Charles speed, and he won't break tackles like Marshawn Lynch. He did consistently make these cerebral kinds of plays against the Vikings, and showed a willingness to aggressively finish runs. For the Steelers, Bell is a huge upgrade at the running back position.
Reggie Bush's Big Day
Le’Veon Bell was forced to wait three weeks before he could step onto the field and show off his talent. Some will say that it took Reggie Bush eight years to do the same. Bush has been a good player since he entered the league in 2006, but because he was phenomenal in college at USC and a very high draft pick, most look down on what he has done. Nobody could look down on what Bush did last Sunday however.
For maybe the first time in his career, Bush looked like the player who played at USC. Everyone will have seen that touchdown run at this point, but that wasn't the only incredible play that Bush made. The now 28-year-old finished the game with 18 carries for 139 yards and a touchdown, as well as four receptions for 34 yards. He did have one fumble, but his blemish was saved by Calvin Johnson's extra effort to recover it.
Bush had 10 plays that gained fewer than two yards, including dropped passes. Realistically, the running back was at fault on just three of those plays. One of those was the fumble and the other two were missed passes.
Conversely, Bush touched the ball nine times when he gained at least nine yards. On those plays, Bush broke 10 tackles, but as impressive as that number is, it doesn't do justice to his performance. Bush wasn't just breaking tackles, he was breaking tackles in very difficult situations.
On this play midway through the first quarter, the Lions motion Brandon Pettigrew across the formation. Pettigrew settles down between the right tackle and right guard. Pettigrew blocks down on the defensive tackle inside with the right guard, while the right tackle is able seal off the other side of the running lane against the defensive end. Bush doesn't get any space to run because the safety aggressively attacks the line of scrimmage.
Chris Conte, the safety, establishes his feet underneath him and sets himself up to tackle Bush. Bush is very quick with his feet however, and is able to make Conte fall outside before he runs past his inside shoulder. Conte desperately tries to pull him down with an outstretched arm, but Bush is too quick. Once past Conte, Bush breaks two more tackles in the secondary for a first down and 17 yard gain.
Bush was consistently making defenders miss in space and breaking tackles, but that wasn't exclusively what made him a dominant runner on the day. On the very next play after his 17 yard gain, Bush showed off outstanding vision and patience behind the line of scrimmage.
The Bears lined up in a Cover-2 look with both safeties deep. That left just seven defenders in the box against the Lions' seven potential blockers. This is a look that the Lions defense faces often because of the presence of Calvin Johnson. As the play develops, we learn that depth is crucial for Bush's success.
As the purple line shows, when Bush gets the ball he has nowhere to go. The blockers in front of him haven't pushed the defenders off the line or created any running lane for him to attack. Bush has the option to cutback across the field, but instead he hesitates and waits for his blocking to develop. As Bush hesitates, James Anderson breaks free inside, which does not escape Bush’s notice. While Bush is watching him coming free inside, a gap is opening between his right tackle and right guard on the edge.
With both safeties playing deep, Bush is able to run through the gap unopposed even after hesitating in the backfield. Julius Peppers tries to pull him down from behind, but Bush spins off that tackle attempt and runs into free space for an 11 yard gain. Even though he's not jumping over defenders in space or sidestepping anyone in the hole, this run is just as impressive as any other run he made on the day because it shows off his intelligence as a runner.
Bush is clearly an explosive runner, but he has never been just a running threat. His ability as a receiver was likely something that made him so attractive to the Lions as a free agent. On at least three occasions, Bush and Joique Bell were on the field at the same time. When both were on the field, Bell lined up as a runner, while Bush played as a tight end or slot receiver.
On this play, Bush is lined up in the slot with Calvin Johnson and Tony Scheffler outside of him. Johnson and Scheffler may both be receiving options first and foremost, but both are well proportioned to be impact blockers. The Bears have left Bush and Johnson uncovered, but they have shifted their linebackers to that side of the field.
The Lions throw a bubble screen to Bush. He turns to face his quarterback but his feet start moving towards the sideline. While that is happening, Scheffler is beaten on his block by the Bears cornerback. As Bush catches the ball, the defender is about to hit him. However, Bush saw the defensive back with his peripheral vision and set him up by the way he caught the ball. Bush made the catch more difficult by extending his hands, but by doing that he was able to get outside the incoming defensive back and escape down the sideline.
Bush's explosion and dynamic ability in the open field is obvious for all to see, but that awareness and quick decision-making is what allowed him to excel against the Bears.