Bell carrying Steelers offense in Roethlisberger's absence
PITTSBURGH (AP) Le'Veon Bell didn't grow up as the fastest kid on the field, the kind who turns into a vapor trail the instant the ball touches his hands.
The speed of Bell's brain, however, was never in doubt. The Pittsburgh Steelers running back had a way of figuring out where to go and how to get there.
If that meant cutting back, he'd cut back. If that meant putting his hand on the rear of one of his linemen, guiding them like a human shopping cart, so be it.
''I do it to let them know I'm behind them and they can kind of hurry up, or I push them in the direction I want to go,'' Bell said.
And make no mistake, that direction is always whichever way the end zone happens to be. Bell produced the signature play of his burgeoning career in last Monday's 24-20 victory over San Diego, stretching across the goal line for the winning score as time expired, taking the direct snap, then placing his right hand on pulling guard David DeCastro as if to say ''I'm following you, big fella.''
Even with 5 seconds remaining, Bell wasn't in a rush. He trusted the call, trusted his line and trusted the instincts that have made him one of the league's most versatile and dynamic players - even if it went against injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's sage advice not to waste any time.
''Ben was telling me `Don't dance around in case we need another play and that's what I had in my mind,''' Bell said. ''I'm just going to hurry it up and get in. But as the play went and I got in the end zone and scored, he was like, `You're still dancing around.' I guess it's just the way I run.''
And mild protests from his quarterback notwithstanding, the Steelers are perfectly OK with Bell's pragmatic approach to his job.
The 23-year-old All-Pro is one of the main reasons Pittsburgh (3-2) has stayed afloat while Roethlisberger rehabs a bruised left knee. Even with opponents throwing bodies at the line of scrimmage like a store opening on Black Friday, Bell is still finding enough room to be effective. He has accounted for 277 total yards over the last two weeks, becoming the first player in nearly three years to go over 100 yards rushing against Baltimore and backing it up with 111 in San Diego, the final one propelling his team to an emotional victory.
''It's hard to compare him to a lot of different people because he is a little unique on how he does things,'' offensive coordinator Todd Haley said.
Which presents Haley with a chance to play his favorite role, the one where he goes all mad scientist thinking up ways to get Bell involved.
In San Diego it was dusting off the wildcat formation - which hasn't really been cool since MySpace was a thing - and letting Bell channel his inner high school quarterback. Bell kept his arm under wraps, either taking it himself or feeding it to DeAngelo Williams, but isn't against Haley allowing him to let it loose at least once if the moment presents itself on Sunday against Arizona (4-1).
Bell figures he could chuck it 50 yards if necessary, but would be fine if he did a jump pass Tim Tebow-style, and pointed out he completed the only pass he attempted during his three years at Michigan State. It's an intriguing concept, though one Haley laughingly declined to indulge in when asked about it Thursday.
The way Haley figures, no need to push it. There's enough for Bell to do already. He's arguably the best receiving back in the league, one who looks just as comfortable lining up in the slot as he does in the backfield. Defenses no longer put a linebacker on him, instead opting for a safety.
Still, the 6-foot-2 Bell is a matchup problem no matter where he is at the snap after dropping down to 215 pounds, 10-15 pounds lighter than last season when he finished second in the NFL in yards from scrimmage.
And about that running style, he's not quite as patient as he used to be. He's worked diligently to improve his footwork so he can plant and go once he decides he's ready. That vision also allows him to avoid the kind of direct hits that shorten the careers of most backs. He carried it 21 times against San Diego and doesn't think he was drilled once.
''It's all been drag-down tackles or getting knocked out of bounds, things like that,'' Bell said. ''As I get older I'm going to continue to get better at it.''
NOTES: Roethlisberger was limited in practice Thursday and will almost certainly miss his third straight start. ... LB Ryan Shazier (shoulder) was limited and could miss his fourth consecutive game.
AP NFL websites: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL