Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Le'Veon Bell

Film Room: Le'Veon Bell
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Cian Fahey

Le'Veon Bell's post-draft development has been impressive. When Bell initially entered the league as a second-round pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was a heavier back who showed off good quickness for his size. Bell had proven himself as a bell cow runner at Michigan State, where he carried the ball 671 times in three seasons. He wasn't viewed as a dynamic back and didn't show off plus athleticism at the combine. Bell weighed 230 pounds, ran a 4.6 forty, and only really impressed in agility drills. As a rookie he immediately showed off a natural feel for the position and consistently created yards behind an offensive line that wasn't always giving him space to work in

Bell could consistently create space with his footwork and vision, but he didn't show off the explosiveness and elusiveness to fully take advantage of that space. The below play against the Baltimore Ravens perfectly captured his skill set.

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This is an impressive play. The above GIF slows down as Bell advances through the line of scrimmage. You can see the slight hesitation he shows to let his blocking develop. The key players he is helping with this subtle movement are David DeCastro (66) and Heath Miller (83). By not immediately planting his foot and making one sharp movement to cut upfield, he forces the defenders engaged with those players to honor the front side of the play for a moment longer. His hesitation also impacts the other linebacker who is engaged on the second level -- you can see him crash inside of DeCastro as Bell advances past his guard's outside shoulder. This puts Bell in space on the second level.

Had Bell been tackled at that point, he would have already gained good yardage, but Bell extends the play by using his peripheral vision and understanding of leverage. Antonio Brown is the receiver coming in from the left. His man has gained good position against the receiver and has an opportunity to close on Bell. Bell recognizes this and makes an excellent jump cut to get to the outside. The timing and explosiveness of Bell's cut allows Brown to take the defender out while also getting in the way of the pursuing safety.

This is the point of the play where Bell's limitations show up. He has a step on the pursuing safety and it's a clear path to the end zone. He gains 43 yards, it's an impressive play. But it really should have been a touchdown once he had reached this point.

Although he only averaged 3.5 yards per carry, it was obvious that Bell was a good running back after his rookie season. It was after his rookie season when things changed.

Bell's skill set hasn't dramatically changed since his rookie year. If you go back and look at his tape you will still see the hesitation, the short-area quickness, and the intelligence. He was even a good receiving back at that point in his career. What has changed is his athleticism. Bell lost a significant amount of weight to become more explosive and dynamic while retaining his power. Those significant changes in athleticism have had a knock-on effect on the technical elements of his skill set. He isn't doing anything differently now than he was back then, he is just doing everything that much quicker. Everything he does is highlighted more now because of his ability to take advantage of the space that he creates.

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Take this somewhat similar play from Bell against the Ravens this year. Once again you can see how he uses hesitation crossing the line of scrimmage to bait defenders into aggressive movements before punishing them by breaking towards space. This time he didn't have the same amount of space to work in that he had in the previous GIF, but the speed difference can still be seen. Bell is confronted by a safety, but he is able to accelerate past him with ease to extend the play further downfield than it really should have gone. He created his opportunity to get outside with his technical ability before then creating his opportunity to add another 10 yards to the end of the run with his sheer athleticism.

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Bell isn't Jamaal Charles. He won't regularly run away from everyone on the field to the point that he looks like Usain Bolt racing a bunch of toddlers. He is now capable of accelerating away from defenders and he doesn't get caught from behind if given a head start. His added athleticism has made him more capable of creating big plays by eluding defenders in space or accelerating past them in tight situations. Those facets of his play have pushed him to an MVP standard of play this year.

Playing in just 12 regular season contests because of a three-game suspension and sitting out one week to rest, Bell accumulated 1,884 total yards on 336 touches. He averaged 4.9 yards per rush and rushed for 105.7 yards per game. The 24-year old became the first player in the history of football to average more than 100 yards rushing and more than 50 yards receiving per game in a season.

Against the Miami Dolphins last week, Bell accounted for 174 yards and two touchdowns on 31 touches. That includes 29 rushes as he averaged 5.8 yards per carry.

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The Dolphins have a strong defensive line, but arguably the worst back seven in football. Bell and Brown were regularly able to simply out-athlete them to create big plays. In the above GIF a defensive back executes the scheme perfectly to meet Bell in the backfield, but Bell easily fended him off before outrunning the angle of a linebacker and finishing the play moving forward against another defensive back.

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Surpassed their athletic limitations, the back seven defenders on the Dolphins didn't help themselves by blowing assignments and showing a lack of discipline. On this play linebacker Kiko Alonso is too easily pushed outside while the incoming safety doesn't react to Alonso's positioning to take away the inside run. Bell gets an untouched scoring play even though the defensive end to that side of the play did his job.

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Theoretically the Kansas City Chiefs this week should be a much greater test for Bell than the Dolphins were. That doesn't necessarily mean they have a good chance of containing him.

The Chiefs and Steelers played early in the regular season. While it's tough to take a huge amount away from a game that happened three months ago in the regular season and in a different stadium, it is notable that Bell ran for 144 yards on 18 carries. The Chiefs had Derrick Johnson for that game too. Johnson has since torn his Achilles and is on IR. Johnson isn't just one of the best linebackers in the league, he's one of the most versatile. His comfort working in space and diagnosing running plays in tight allowed the Chiefs to be more aggressive, but it would also have given them a better chance at matching up to Bell.

Bell and the Steelers running game are dangerous when they line the quarterback under center and attempt to run straight through you. That will be a tough challenge for the Chiefs, but the sheer quality of their defenders should give them a chance at controlling the hits they take on those plays. Where the concerns come is when the Steelers function out of spread formations.

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In the previous matchup, Bell's longest run of the game came from a shotgun formation. He lined up in the backfield to the right of Ben Roethlisberger while the only tight eligible receiver to the formation was on the quarterback's left. The Steelers cut the backside defender with their right tackle while pulling their center and left guard to clear a running lane for Bell. The left guard was stood up and beaten in his block on the edge, but Bell's quick recognition and quickness cutting inside of the block allowed him to advance downfield. He side-stepped two more defenders, one engaged in a block and one not, while not slowing his stride. The runner was eventually crowded out over the sideline but not until he had put his offense in the red zone.

The natural space that comes with these formations makes it almost impossible to contain Bell. If he's not running through wider lanes or manipulating engaged defenders to find wide-open space, he's being used in the passing game.

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Todd Haley added a new wrinkle to his offense for the Miami defense last week. The Dolphins were caught in man coverage when the Steelers sent out a screen design that was designed to deceive them. Roethlisberger originally looked to his left where Bell was running into the flat. While he did that, the opposite side of the field was setting up a wide receiver screen for Brown. Eli Rodgers, the inside slot receiver to that side, sold that he was blocking before turning back to his quarterback. As Rodgers turned back, center Maurkice Pouncey was advancing to the line of scrimmage. Pouncey is the only blocker for Rodgers on this play; the other four linemen stay in to block. Haley has made great use of one-blocker screens this year.

The above play is notable for Bell because it's one on which he is extremely dangerous when he is the screen receiver. He converted a second-and-10 to gain 22 yards against the New England Patriots.

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Against the Cleveland Browns, Bell gained 19 yards and a first down on second-and-10.

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On a third-and-10 against the Buffalo Bills, Bell gained 32 yards even after running into one of his blockers.

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You'll note that two of those three GIFs are essentially the same play designs as the throw to Rodgers against the Dolphins. Haley has done an excellent job of keeping defenses off balance by staying unpredictable. He uses slow-developing screens, quick screens, bubble screens, and throws to any of his skill position players. It's almost impossible to anticipate the screens that Haley calls because even if you think you've keyed in on one, it could feature a different element that you didn't expect. Even with Brown on the field, Bell is the player the Chiefs have to be most wary of on underneath throws. Without Johnson, they will need to consistently flow to the ball and trap Bell before he can get too far downfield.

With the Chiefs' litany of pass rushers and Roethlisberger's apparent injured ankle, screens should feature heavily this weekend. Bell of course isn't limited to screens -- he can line up anywhere on the field and become a mismatch receiver.

Bell has developed into one of the best players in the NFL. He is comfortably the best running back in the NFL because of his versatility. That's no slight to David Johnson or Ezekiel Elliott -- Bell has just developed to the point that he needs to be put on his own pedestal. Even with an unhealthy Roethlisberger, the clash between Bell, Brown, the Steelers offensive line and the Chiefs defense in Kansas City should provide us with one of the most tantalizing matchups of the season.


13 comments, Last at 13 Jan 2017, 2:06pm

1 Re: Film Room: Le'Veon Bell

To me Bell's defining feature is his patience. It seemed like on every run last week he would get the ball and then slow down (almost hesitate) waiting for the blockers to do their jobs and then accelerate through the now available hole. To be successful this strategy definitely requires top level quickness and agility.

2 Re: Film Room: Le'Veon Bell

"Bell gets an untouched scoring play even though the defensive end to that side of the play did his job."
Look closely as the RE #50 is left unblocked, DeCastro #66 traps him. But the end gives up his outside contain by hitting DeCastro on the inside.
Bell goes outside the end and the safety can't make the play anymore.
Had the End #50 gone on the outside of DeCastro, then the safety could have made the play in the tunnel.

5 Re: Film Room: Le'Veon Bell

I think that given that the LB was moving outside and the DE was moving inside right at the snap that LB was the force player and they were running a stunt/game to the offensive left. I think this blown defensive call was mostly on the safety, who could've blown up the play if he played downhill but he didn't hedge his bet and break down but instead committed to the outside.

6 Re: Film Room: Le'Veon Bell

I think one issue this article could have addressed is how the apparent increase in stunting among defensive front 7's seems to have really rewarded runners that are more patient. I think it's fair to theorize that as fewer teams have pro-style running games that they use effectively and consistently coaches put a lot less emphasis on the sort of positional, containing, play required to stop a runner like Bell in favor of the kind of stunts and aggression that can create penetration. I think in light of the success of similar backs like Blunt for the Patriots, it's worth exploring whether Bell is actually getting better, or the league as a whole is getting worse at stopping the things he does.

7 Re: Film Room: Le'Veon Bell

It looks to my eyes like it unfolds too slowly to be a stunt. If it's a called stunt, I think the DE would be crashing more aggressively to get across the TE's face, and the LB would make more of an immediate effort to get outside the TE. Instead, they're both kind of hesitant, like they're reading and reacting to the play. Of course, either way it's bad football, and it's impossible for us to really know the playcall without being in the huddle.

13 Re: Film Room: Le'Veon Bell

Nah, the linebackers just play the run, but the right linebacker is easily blocked by the LT (after the LT pushes the tackle into the guard)

And a stunt doesn't work if the end is outside the TE and the LB is inside the tackle.

#50 should go outside, #47 plays way to high and gets blocked out of his gap, the tackle (#90?) doesn't hold his gap on the double team, so he's easily chipped and blocked so the Steelers LT can go second level to the other linebacker #53 - who should scrape/play the cutback. But that linebacker waits, doesn't attack and never even enters the play.

It's a beautiful play by the steelers too. The TE that goes second level, the double team by the T/G that allows the T to go to the other linebacker, the pull by the LG #66 who takes out the end...

9 Re: Film Room: Le'Veon Bell

My order of fault would be LB, safety, DE. The defensive end does an OK job taking on the pulling lineman. He doesn't blow up the play but holds his ground pretty well. The linebacker gets his ass beat so badly that the safety basically had no chance against a runner like Bell: if he played it conservatively and broke down, Bell would've beat him to the edge and scored on the outside, and if he tried to beat him to the edge then Bell would cut it inside the TE's block and score untouched. The safety on this play would never have been good enough to make the play, you'd need an All-Pro safety to make it based off of how the play developed.

11 Re: Film Room: Le'Veon Bell

If I am viewing it right, the hole is so large that if #50 tries to keep outside leverage, instead of crashing into DeCastro, Bell would cut upfield one step quicker, underneath DeCastro's block, into the same hole, and still score the TD. At the very least, #50 at least attacks, instead of waiting for DeCastro to get to him. No other Dolphin does anything to win their assignment on the playside.

12 Re: Film Room: Le'Veon Bell

To me the way #50 deliberately chooses to attack the inside shoulder of the blocker and the fact that there are 3 defenders out wider than him leads me to believe that he did not have contain responsibility. Looking at the pre-snap alignment, just 4 defenders straight ahead of the 6 blockers make it look like the defense is more worried bout an outside run than anything else.

3 Re: Film Room: Le'Veon Bell

Do defensive lineman ever knock down an offensive lineman's hand vs. the run? Seems the Steelers line is getting some firm inside holds and defenders are unable to get off those blocks even when they seem to be in position to make a play. Maybe inside defensive lineman need to knock down hands, much like edge rushers do, versus the Steelers, so they can't lock them up.

10 Re: Film Room: Le'Veon Bell

lost in what has been a pretty poor season (of overall* play, including a buttload of penalties), is that DeCastro is still amazing in his ability to get through traffic and into space in the 2nd level on most of those screens. I almost wonder if they have some sort of trick play setup on a fake screen or back-pass where he sells out. With the lineman downfield rule, it could get complicated, but defenders have to be keying on him/screen now....

The standard is the standard!