PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin believes Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams can be on the field at the same time.
Tomlin didn’t say “backfield,” however. And there’s a difference. A big one.
Bell’s return from a three-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy gives the Steelers (2-1) one of the best running back combinations in the NFL. It also allows offensive coordinator Todd Haley to get creative in figuring out how to keep both of them involved.
The proof came during practice on Wednesday, when Bell went streaking down the sideline and hauled in a rainbow from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger while remembering to keep his two feet inbounds.
“I want to be a player for all aspects of the game,” Bell said. “I want to catch short passes, downfield, whatever it may be.”
Bell hauled in 82 passes during his breakout season in 2014, obliterating the club record for receptions by a running back. At 6-foot-2 he presents a matchup problem for opposing defenses and has spent the last three years taking copious mental notes as All-Pro teammate Antonio Brown became one of the best wide receivers in the game. There are worse examples to follow. A lot worse.
“I just watch him and how to release in different situations,” Bell said. “I try to put that in my game.”
Bell grew up in Ohio idolizing Randy Moss having his uncle throw passes to him. If things had gone a different way, maybe Bell would have followed the future Hall of Famer’s path. Bell’s body made the choice for him. He grew to 245 pounds during his college career at Michigan State, though he’s trimmed down considerably as a pro and and spent the last couple of offseasons focusing on his agility. His Instagram feed is sprinkled with the occasional video of Bell’s feet a blur underneath him as he weaves around obstacles like a bulkier version of Brown getting loose in an opposing secondary.
“I’m sure if he went receiver full-time, lost a couple of pounds, he’d be fantastic,” Pittsburgh wide receiver Markus Wheaton said.
Bell certainly was in 2014, though the majority of his hookups with Roethlisberger were screens or simple flares out of the backfield. Not so much anymore. Bell believes he can be a threat going deep and the coaches seem to agree. Haley expanded Bell’s role in the passing game during organized team activities and minicamp, though Roethlisberger stressed that doesn’t mean Bell can bail on his day job: taking a handoff and dancing upfield as often as possible.
“We’re not going to take the RB off the front of his name and put WR,” Roethlisberger said. “But I definitely think that he’s one of our best receivers.”
And Williams remains one of the most effective running backs around, even at 33. He ranks seventh in the league in yards rushing even with a 21-yard performance in last week’s loss to Philadelphia. Williams has long since taken his ego out of the equation, saying the starting job is Bell’s whenever Bell is available.
“The two-back system would work here, but Bell is so dynamic when he plays the game I don’t want him to come off the field,” Williams said.
The feeling is mutual. If things work out, maybe Williams and Bell become the millennial version of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Maybe.
“He’s a guy who should be out there,” Bell said of Williams. “Whether I’m a receiver blocking for him, or if I’m at receiver and he’s in protection and I’m running routes, whatever it may be. You want to give teams different looks, make them not sure what personnel to be out there.”
That’s kind of the point.
“We can mix it up,” Wheaton said. “We can go big guys and spread them out with him and create matchup problems.”
Regardless, Bell is simply relieved to be talking about football and not the off-the-field issues — health and otherwise — that have dogged him for the last 12 months.
“Last year we started to get into me moving around and things like that, we want that to continue to grow,” Bell said. “I don’t want to fall off what I’ve learned already. I should be fine. I’ll accept the workload and I’ll be ready.”
NOTES: G Ramon Foster (chest), S Robert Golden (hamstring), S Sean Davis (back), LB Ryan Shazier (knee) and WR Eli Rogers (toe) did not practice on Wednesday. LB Lawrence Timmons, who left the Eagles game with a puncture wound, was a full participant.