After spending the first five years of his career with the Steelers, it seems running back Le’Veon Bell is not long for Pittsburgh. Unable to negotiate a long-term deal with the Steelers by Monday’s franchise tag deadline, Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, shocked much of the NFL community, saying “His intention was to retire as a Steeler. But now that there’s no deal, the practical reality is, this now likely will be Le’Veon’s last season as a Steeler.” Bell chimed in too, offering, “to all my Steeler fans, my desire always has been to retire a Steeler… both sides worked extremely hard today to make that happen, but the NFL is a hard business at times… to the fans that had hope, I’m sorry we let youu down but trust me, 2018 will be my best season to date…” In the past, Bell expressed a desire to earn no less than $14.5 million per year, serving as modest justification for his reported denial of a 5 year – $70 million contract offer. Once threatening to consider retirement if not fairly compensated, Bell has maintained ambitious standards for the duration of contract negotiations, which began over one year ago when Pittsburgh applied the first of two franchise tags to the perennial pro bowler: “I’m not going to settle for anything. I know what I do and what I bring to the table. I’m not going out here getting the ball 400 times if I’m not getting what I feel I’m valued at.” Presumably leaving next offseason, Bell takes his youth with him, putting the longevity of Pittsburgh’s title hopes in question. Beyond the 2018 season, laden with injury prone, aging (though certainly illustrious) offensive talent and a perennially mediocre defensive squad, the Steelers’ future merits substantial suspicion.
What Bell has Brought to the Steelers
Since being selected 48th overall in the 2013 NFL Draft, Bell has led his team in rushing in four of five seasons, failing to reach 1,200 yards just twice and averaging over 1,067 ground yards per year. In 2014, the former Spartan’s most productive year thus far, Bell collected 1,361 rushing yards, adding a remarkable 854 receiving yards to go along with 11 all-purpose touchdowns and 0 fumbles. Pittsburgh’s second-leading receiver that year, Bell accounted for 33% of the team’s total offensive yards. Despite playing a full 16 game season just once, Bell has earned First-Team All-Pro honors twice (2014, 2017) and been selected to three pro bowls (2014, 2016, 2017). As it stands now, a transition to life without Bell in the backfield projects to be a difficult one for the Steelers. In 2017, the versatile back logged 406 touches, ranking 36th all time and 2nd since 2010. Just over 49% of the Steelers’ touches belonged to #26. Figuratively, then, Pittsburgh stands to lose just under half of its offense. How can the team replace such volume and production? There do not appear to be answers on the roster as it is currently configured. Beyond Bell, the Steelers’ running back depth chart features James Conner, Fitzgerald Toussaint, and Stevan Ridley. James Conner has shown promise, but an MCL tear suffered in his rookie campaign has justifiably tempered any immediate expectations. Barring the improbable, the Steelers will be without Bell’s services in under 9 months, and the team must begin to search for or groom a successor.
How Much do Ben and Brown Have Left?
Relying on Bell to guide the running game, the Steelers’ offense has achieved an adept passing attack on the backs of stars Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. Almost unanimously considered the NFL’s best wide receiver, Brown has reached heights higher than most thought possible when the Steelers selected him 195th overall in 2010. Roethlisberger, meanwhile, a 2x Super Bowl champion, seems Hall of Fame bound. Both, though, boast extensive injury histories. Brown, partially tearing his calf in a week 15 loss to the New England Patriots, missed the remainder of the regular season. Brown also missed time during the team’s 2016 playoff run due to a concussion. Long praised for his durability and toughness, Roethlisberger’s physical style of play has dealt him a slew of injuries in recent years. Most recently, Roethlisberger’s left knee has caused him to miss time. Just one season ago, Big Ben tore his meniscus, an injury he sustained having sprained the knee’s MCL one year prior. In total, the pair of injuries cost Roethlisberger five games. The quarterback’s list of injuries that failed to hold him from game action is much longer. A shoulder a/c joint sprain, a concussion, a rib separation, a finger dislocation, a nose fracture, several foot fractures and an Achilles pull have all hampered the former 11th overall pick. In addition to and perhaps because of his injuries, Roethlisberger openly contemplated retirement last offseason. Retirement considerations and archives aside, Big Ben and AB have excelled in recent years, helping the Steelers to annual title contention. Both, though, have reached the metaphorical back nine of their respective careers, and one has to wonder if they’ll be able to take on expanded workloads should Bell leave.
Can the Defense Build upon 2017?
The defensive side of the ball, a yearly weak spot for the Steelers, has, according to some, played a significant role in keeping a championship just out of arm’s reach. In 2017 though, Pittsburgh’s defense made promising strides, leading all teams in sacks while allowing the 5th fewest yards per game to their opponents. Even so, the tragic loss of Ryan Shazier to a devastating injury leaves serious questions at linebacker. Likewise, beyond an aging Joe Haden, the team’s cornerback room has shown little reason for enthusiasm. Perhaps most disheartening is the defense’s complete inability to slow down Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Year in and year out since 2010, the group succumbs to anarchical ineptitude when facing the All-Pro. In six matchups against the Steelers, Gronkowski has recorded two separate three touchdown performances. In the most recent showdown, Gronk hauled in nine grabs for a career-high 168 yards, earning himself a flawless 99.9 overall grade from Pro Football Focus. In the absence of a clock-controlling back such as Bell, it seems ill-advised to put faith in what is largely a shaky defensive unit. Should Pittsburgh fail to build upon its 2017 defensive strides, the team’s Super Bowl window will close simultaneously with Bell’s imminent departure.