Steelers not doomed without Bell in wild card, but pressure's on Big Ben
So while the Steelers may find a way past Baltimore in Saturday night's wild-card round matchup, the task grows much more difficult with news that Bell has been ruled out of action due to a hyperextended right knee suffered last week.
Josh Harris, Dri Archer and the newly signed Ben Tate will try to pick up the slack in Bell's stead. In truth, though, the real onus for keeping Pittsburgh's Super Bowl dreams alive will fall on QB Ben Roethlisberger, who fired six touchdown passes in his last outing against the Ravens.
“I don’t know if we’ll have to revamp [the offense] considerably [without Bell],” Roethlisberger said, via CBSLocal. "We’ll get some runs that the other guys are best at, we’ll make sure that everyone is ready to go with maybe some no-huddle, more passing maybe, some empty stuff. We’ll see, we’ll kind of put together a plan and see how it goes throughout the week."
As evidenced by his 290 rushing attempts and 83 receptions, Bell is an extremely capable three-down back; he's also a solid blocker in front of Roethlisberger. Barring an unexpected outburst from one of the three remaining backs, the Steelers will be forced to mix and match in the backfield based on situations -- something they did not have to do so when Bell was available.
It's worth noting Bell's blocking abilities, because Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Pernell McPhee are awaiting their cracks at Roethlisberger. Baltimore's defensive weakness is in the secondary (23rd in the league vs. the pass, 4th vs. the run), but that pass-rushing trio combined for 36.5 sacks.
Another element that may be at play here, though: the weather. Rain and ice are expected throughout Saturday in Pittsburgh, where the Heinz Field sod is notoriously rough in the first place. If the Steelers are forced to throw the football because of a lackluster run game, will Roethlisberger be able to do so in subpar conditions, with that Baltimore front in his face?
"You know it’s a big difference especially with so much riding on this game," Suggs said earlier this week, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, of Bell's possible absence. "He’s a Pro Bowl player and he’s a great player so definitely you got to pay attention to that, but we’re going to continue to work and do what we do."
The Steelers' offense will attempt to do the same, to some extent. Prior to his injury-marred Week 17 outing, Bell's worst game of the 2014 season as a rusher came in the earlier 43-23 win over Baltimore. He mustered a mere 20 yards on 10 carries; ex-Steeler and current Patriots LeGarrette Blount added 23 yards on his own 10 attempts. Bell was one of five Steelers to catch a touchdown pass from Roethlisberger that day, as offensive coordinator Todd Haley leaned heavily on his passing attack.
Baltimore revamped its secondary shortly after that Week 9 defeat, cutting Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown and replacing them with, among others, Anthony Levine and later Rashaan Melvin. How those players and Lardarius Webb hold up against Antonio Brown and co. will be front and center Sunday, even more so with Bell missing.
While the loss of Bell may not doom Pittsburgh to an early playoff exit, it does shift the outlook for Saturday's showdown. The matchup when the Steelers have the football now firmly pits their passing attack against the Ravens' secondary. Anything that Tate, Harris or Archer adds in the run game will be a bonus.