Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) dives for a touchdown while being tackled by Cincinnati Bengals strong safety George Iloka (43) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014 in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Frank Victores)
Frank Victores
December 09, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) Ben Roethlisberger waited for the call in his helmet, but the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line already knew what was coming. Then again, they should. They did request it after all.

Le'Veon Bell to the left. Heath Miller, David DeCastro and Will Johnson leading the way. Again. And again. And again. At least, until the Cincinnati Bengals found out a way to stop the blossoming second-year running back.

''The offensive line was like, `Man, we feel good about it,''' Bell said. ''As a runner, I'm running whatever the offensive linemen want to run.''

It showed. Time and again Bell dashed and darted through increasingly large holes late in Sunday's 42-21 victory over the tired, lethargic Bengals. When he was done, 26 carries, 185 yards and two touchdowns later, so was Cincinnati.

''We ran the same play two, three, four times in a row, consecutively,'' Bell said. ''Those guys just couldn't stop it. So we continued to run with it.''

Funny how often Pittsburgh victories follow suit. The Steelers (8-5) are 5-1 when the NFL's second leading rusher runs the ball at least 20 times a game. Considering his production spike in recent weeks, due in large part to the cohesive play in front of him, don't expect Bell's workload to lessen anytime soon.

Pressed on if he ever saw Bell winded on a day he had 32 touches in all - including six receptions for 50 yards and a score - and left tackle Kelvin Beachum just smiled.

''Not at all, not at all, not at all,'' Beachum said.

Consider it a testament to Bell's growing reputation as one of the league's most durable backs and the fact he's not taking a lot of abuse. It helps that he's often past the really big guys on the defensive line before getting hit.

''The offensive line has done a great job of opening holes for me,'' Bell said. ''On check downs, Ben (Roethlisberger) is doing a good job of getting me the ball and allowing me to run with some space. So you've got to give a lot of credit to the offense and the offensive coaching staff.''

One that is committing to the run even with Roethlisberger in the midst of the best season of his career, even with no tested depth behind Bell after the team cut LeGarrette Blount last month. Needing a victory against the Bengals to have any chance of tracking them down in the AFC North, offensive coordinator Todd Haley put the bulk of the load on Bell's increasingly broad shoulders.

It was also a vote of confidence for a talented but erratic line that has taken its share of criticism over the last three seasons amid injuries and inconsistent play. Those issues have largely disappeared. The Steelers have only started three different line combinations this season, giving the group littered with high draft picks time to gel.

''Those guys physically and mentally are in the prime of their career,'' coach Mike Tomlin said. ''A lot of three, four, five-year guys. Guys have grown and grown up together.''

And they will be tested together as a three-game stretch looms that will define Pittsburgh's season. As potent as the Steelers have looked at times, they've also had trouble finishing off weaker teams. Pittsburgh squeaked out victories against Jacksonville and Tennessee and fell to Tampa Bay and the New York Jets. It can't happen again, not with the four teams in the AFC North separated by 1.5 games.

The Steelers are hoping to return to the playoffs for the first time in three years.

Beachum understands the line doesn't have to be great all the time, just good enough to give Bell the sliver of light he needs to turn an ordinary run into something else entirely.

''We know what's at stake,'' Beachum said. ''It's that time of the year, its AFC North football and we got playoff hopes on the line so I think everybody sucking it up and just trying to find a way to push through.''

NOTES: Tomlin said linebacker James Harrison (knee), cornerback Ike Taylor (knee) and right tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle) will have a chance to play on Sunday against Atlanta (5-8).

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