PITTSBURGH — This was always part of Le’Veon Bell’s business plan, the one that the Pittsburgh Steelers running back put together over the summer when he decided to skip training camp while waiting to sign his franchise tag tender.
Bell’s eyes weren’t focused on August but January. No camp meant less wear and tear on the legs that are pivotal to his team’s Super Bowl hopes.
Even after a season in which his 406 touches were 60 more than any other player in the league, Bell insists he’s “100” as the kids say heading into Sunday’s divisional round game against Jacksonville.
“I feel great, especially not playing these last two weeks, not going to camp earlier in the year,” Bell said Wednesday. “I can’t complain. I like where I am. This is the freshest I’ve ever been going into the playoffs so we’ll see how it goes.”
Bell missed the 2014 and 2015 playoffs with knee injuries and after practically carrying the Pittsburgh offense through the second half of the season in 2016, the groin problem he spent weeks trying to ignore flared up early in the AFC championship game.
He managed just 20 yards on six carries before leaving in the second quarter of a 36-17 loss to New England and spent the rest of the game watching from the sideline, helpless amid the blowing snow.
A year later, the memory lingers. Bell knows Pittsburgh’s best chance to finally unseat the Patriots is with his No. 26 featured prominently.
It’s one of the main reasons why he waited until Sept. 4 to sign the franchise tender that made him the highest-paid running back in the league, a decision that briefly alienated the fan base, but one his teammates understood completely.
The running back and part-time rapper considers himself unlike any other player in the league. It’s not a coincidence that he mentioned “$17 million” during one freestyle session over the summer.
If anything, the $12 million he’s earned this season looks like a bargain. Bell earned first-team All-Pro honors at the “flex” position, a testament to his unique skillset.
He finished third in the league in yards rushing (1,291) and 10th in receptions (85) despite sitting out the regular-season finale with a first-round bye already clinched.
“He wanted to get paid $17 million, but that’s because of what he does,” guard Ramon Foster said.
“He catches and runs the ball, he blocks. He does everything. That’s right up his alley. To be honest, I’m happy for him because he made himself into that. You can’t just be a running back anymore and he’s proven that.”
Yet Bell is at the point in his career where what happens from September through December is no longer the point.
On a team loaded with talent, he’s well aware the one thing he’s missing on his resume is the one thing that a massive payday and all the regular-season touches in the world can’t buy.
“I honestly don’t care about records or things like that,” Bell said. “I just want to win a championship. I think everything else kind of comes with it.”
And Bell isn’t afraid to speak his mind to make sure Pittsburgh’s season ends in Minneapolis next month. He didn’t hesitate to question his relatively light workload during a 30-9 loss to Jacksonville on Oct. 8. He carried just 15 times for 47 yards against a team that came into the game ranked last in the NFL against the rush.
“We didn’t necessarily stick to our game plan, we had to start playing catch-up a little bit so we couldn’t really run the ball as much as we wanted to,” Bell said. “We’ll see how the game goes. We want to be balanced.”
For the Steelers that often means making sure Bell is a vital part of the process. Pittsburgh is 6-0 this season when Bell has 30 touches or more.
It sounds like a lot because it is a lot.
Yet Bell also hasn’t crossed it since a win over Green Bay the weekend after Thanksgiving.
Compare that to a year ago, when he needed a painkiller shot before the AFC title game just to play, a patchwork solution that failed spectacularly.
The first time the Patriots hit Bell, the throbbing in his groin returned. There will be no shot necessary on Sunday.
“I don’t go into a game feeling achy or sore,” Bell said. “I’m going there and literally feeling like it’s new, like I haven’t played in a minute, I want to get back out there.”
The proof can be heard on the practice field, where Foster says Bell keeps yelling “Tempo! Tempo!” in an effort to get his teammates to pick up the pace, not always an easy task more than five months into the season.
“His sense of urgency is higher than I ever seen it,” Foster said. “He’s eager about it. When you’ve got a guy like him that’s eager to do it … you’ve got to believe in those guys.”
NOTES: DE Stephon Tuitt (elbow) was limited in practice on Wednesday. … DB Artie Burns (knee) was also limited. … WR Antonio Brown (left calf) was listed as a full participant.