Le’Veon Bell ensured that the intrigue regarding his potential continues as he issued a couple of cryptic tweets Wednesday night, one day after he bid his offseason home of Miami farewell.
Bell has returned to the Pittsburgh area but still hasn’t visited Steelers headquarters, per multiple reports.
But the Bell watch very well could soon end, because the disgruntled running back must report by next Tuesday if he is to play at all this season. If the all-pro does return rather than decide to remain out, coach Mike Tomlin and his staff have a predicament on their hands.
The Steelers started off slow this season, but have won four consecutive games and five of their last six. Meanwhile, Bell’s replacement James Conner has thrived, rushing for 771 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season after Thursday night’s thrashing of the Panthers.
Conner, who has topped the 100-yard mark in four of his last five games, has earned the respect and confidence of his teammates and coaches alike.
“The kid, to be completely honest about you, he just has a focus about him,” offensive guard Ramon Foster told USA TODAY Sports when asked about Conner two weeks ago. “He wants to be good. He wants to be that guy. You can tell it’s in him. I love watching him run because he has a passion about him. It’s not just us.”
But each week that Conner has shined, the question resurfaces: Do the Steelers really need Bell? And what happens to Conner if Bell returns?
The answer to the first question is yes. The Steelers absolutely need Bell, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, who is coming off of back-to-back seasons with at least 1,200 yards rushing and 600 yards receiving. With high-powered offenses in Kansas City and New England potentially standing in their way this postseason, Pittsburgh will need all the help it can get.
The second question, however, doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. Conner and Bell can coexist.
The Steelers first must make sure Bell is in game shape, and it could take some time for him to round into form. But once he is ready, Tomlin has a chance to field one of the most dominant backfields in the league.
A two-back system can work in the NFL. Just look to the hottest team in the league, the Saints, who utilize both Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.
Last year, Ingram rushed for 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns as the bruising back. The faster Kamara provided another dimension and exceptional pass-catching ability while accounting for 1,554 yards from scrimmage (728 rushing, 826 receiving) and 13 touchdowns. And two have been tremendously effective working in tandem again this season.
Ingram and Kamara thrive simultaneously because coach Sean Payton understands situational football and identifies the best way to capitalize on an opponent’s weaknesses. Payton rotates his backs and knows how to use one to set up the other for a big gain. There are even times when they’re on the field at the same time, which can create even more headaches for opponents.
Likewise, Bell and Conner have different styles and can attack defenses in a variety of ways. Pittsburgh could use Conner as the inside runner just as the Saints use Ingram. And since Bell likely will want to limit his workload and injury risk, Tomlin can deploy him as a change-of-pace back and pass-catching threat out of the backfield, just as New Orleans does with Kamara.
Line them up in the back field together at times. Send Bell in motion and line him up as receiver. Do you key on Bell as a defense? Do you key on Conner?
But one thing should be clear: Conner should not lose his starting job. He has been producing all season. His teammates respect and appreciate him and know he’s in this with them. Bell made the decision that he believed was best for him, and now he must work his way back into the good graces of others in the organization. If he accepts whatever role he receives, all will be well in the Steel City.
Great situation for Bryant
Speaking of New Orleans, the Saints showed that they’re not satisfied with their already potent offense when they signed wide receiver Dez Bryant on Wednesday.
There are still some around the league who don’t Bryant, out of work since he was released by the Cowboys in April, as a difference maker, even in a No. 2 or 3 role. Despite his track record, some former opponents have said he doesn’t get off the line as well as he once did.
But Bryant still has a chance to make his mark in New Orleans. He just turned 30 and might not be a downfield burner, but he still could be a threat. Bryant does some of his best work snagging short passes and then running after the catch. Similar opportunities should arise with Drew Brees throwing to him.
It’s true that Bryant hasn’t had a thousand-yard or double-digit-touchdown season since 2014. But the Cowboys’ offense as a whole also struggled for long stretches under offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
The Saints also have a true No. 1 receiver in Michael Thomas. His presence means Bryant no longer will command the attention of the top opposing cornerback.
Bryant has one of the greatest offensive minds in the league as his head coach and a quarterback still at the top of his game in Brees. He should produce for the Saints, giving the team more balance at receiver and possibly easing some pressure on Thomas.
Falcons flying high again?
After a 1-4 start to the season, the Falcons appear to have hit their stride and now have won three consecutive games.
Paving the way for their success is an offense that has netted 400 yards and averaged 31 points per game in the ongoing win streak.
People within the organization point to two factors: stellar play from Matt Ryan and great leadership from the quarterback during the week.
Ryan is posting career highs in completion percentage (70.8) and yards per game (335.6). That success partially stems from his connection with his weapons beyond wide receiver Julio Jones.
Ryan has brought along young players like rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who leads the team with seven touchdown catches, running backs Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith and tight end Austin Hooper. As a result of their extra post-practice work, the quarterback feels more comfortable with them in games and has done a better job of taking what’s available to him rather than forcing the ball to Jones or Mohamed Sanu in less-than-ideal situations.
This approach has led to improvement in the red zone, where the Falcons rank seventh in the league this season, scoring on 69 percent of their trips inside the 20. That’s a marked improvement over last season when Atlanta ranked 23rd, scoring just 49 percent of the time in the red zone.
Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.