PITTSBURGH (AP) The phone calls and texts between LeGarrette Blount and Le'Veon Bell haven't stopped.
Not after the embarrassing traffic stop in the summer of 2014 that ended with both running backs being charged with drug possession and - eventually - suspensions for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Not after the talented but enigmatic Blount walked off the field and ostensibly out of a job when he headed to the locker room with time still on the clock during a Monday night win in Tennessee later that year, a silent protest for a lack of touches on a night Bell ran for 204 yards.
Not even this week, with Blount prepping for his first visit to Pittsburgh since the Steelers (4-2) cut him for insubordination when New England (5-1) visits Heinz Field.
''He's still one of my closest friends,'' Bell said. ''I still talk to him. He watches my game. I watch his. We still critique each other, tell each other what we do good, what we do bad. He's definitely a good guy.''
Maybe, though the image of Blount already dressed and practically sprinting for the bus by the time his teammates walked into the visitor's locker room in Nashville, remains fresh.
''It's nothing that you take personally, but football player to football player, that's something you don't do,'' Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats said.
The Steelers cut Blount less than 48 hours later, though the ink on the transaction wasn't even dry when the Patriots asked Blount to come back home.
In a way, Blount's performance over the last two years with the Patriots has only validated Blount's assertion that he deserved to be more involved in the game plan. He won a Super Bowl in New England two months after re-signing with New England and is currently seventh in the league in rushing (439 yards) and tied for second in touchdowns (six).
And his good friend has noticed.
''He's a monster,'' Blount said. ''I think he's one of the best running backs in this league. I think he's an underrated guy. I think he'll start getting the respect he deserves once he's consistent and on the field a lot.''
Something that didn't happen nearly enough in 2014. Brought in to serve as a veteran presence behind Bell, Blount ended up seeing his role diminish as Bell became one of the best all-around backs in the league, his potential on full display as he practically carried the Steelers on the back of his No. 26 jersey in a 27-24 escape against the Titans.
''Obviously he might have been a little frustrated because he didn't play as much and being a competitor you want to play,'' Bell said. ''But he understood that he kind of made the wrong decision. He wasn't mad at me for the game I had. He just wanted to play and show the team he's able to help contribute.''
Blount's departure plays in stark contrast to Pittsburgh's current backfield setup. Where Blount eventually chafed when left on the sideline, DeAngelo Williams has embraced his role as the 1B to Bell's 1A. The all-time leading rusher in Carolina Panthers history has played remarkably well at times when filling in for Bell. Williams even led the NFL in yards rushing through the first two weeks of this season while Bell sat out a suspension.
Yet when Bell returned, there was no question about who should top the depth chart.
''L. Bell is so dynamic when he plays the game that I don't want him to come off the field,'' Williams said in September.
Bell likely won't have much of a choice this week anyway. Williams is out with a knee issue, as is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, meaning backup Landry Jones will likely rely heavily on Bell to help carry the load. He averaged 25 touches during Roethlisberger's four-game absence in 2015 and earned an admirer eager to get a close-up look on Sunday.
When asked about Bell's talent, New England coach Bill Belichick uncharacteristically blurted out, ''Oh, my god.''
''He can do it all,'' Belichick said. ''However he gets the ball he's really dangerous.''
Blount remains plenty dangerous in his own right, though his carries have dipped slightly since Tom Brady's return from his four-game ''Deflategate'' suspension. The typically reticent Blount has kept quiet this week, saying he'll talk after the game. There may be boos Sunday the first time he takes a handoff from Brady. Just because the Steelers are over Blount's exit doesn't mean the city is, particularly one that doesn't take rejection well.
''He may have more animosity about it than we do,'' Moats said. ''No matter who's lining up there on Sunday, they're going to have to pay.''
NOTES: In addition to Williams and Roethlisberger, wide receiver Markus Wheaton (shoulder), right tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle) and defensive end Cam Heyward (hamstring) are also out.
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