PITTSBURGH, Pa. — On the Steelers’ third drive, after taking a few handoffs in a row, Le’Veon Bell looked up and noticed the Dolphins defensive backs had moved a few steps further back than usual. On the Steelers’ first two drives, Antonio Brown had burned them on two long touchdowns, one for 50 and one for 62 yards, and it clearly had had an effect.
“A.B.’s done scared them,” Bell thought to himself.
He turned to the sideline and indicated to the coaches that he felt good, that he didn’t feel fatigued, and he wanted them to keep getting the ball. He took each hand-off, paused at the line and then felt his way for space, for five yards here and five yards there. Then finally he broke through, like a miner striking gold, sprinting through a gaping hole, for a 25-yard gain. Two plays later, it was—guess who?—Bell who carried the ball into the end zone for the score. He carried the ball in each of the 10 plays that drive, and the Steelers still scored.
This was the first playoff game Ben Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell ever played together, and it showed. After Brown scared the Dolphins early with his two long touchdowns, Bell went on to carry the ball 29 times for 167 yards, setting a Steelers record for most rushing yards in a single playoff game, passing franchise legends Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis. Bell scored two touchdowns to match Brown’s two scores, finishing off the Dolphins, 30–12.
The Steelers play the Chiefs next week, and, if they win there, they’ll probably play the Patriots after that. If they’re going to keep up with Alex Smith and Travis Kelce, and with Tom Brady and LaGarrette Blount—if the Steelers are going to win the AFC—they’ll have to ride their Big Three. When the three of them play like this, who can really match them?
Take Brown’s first two touchdowns for instance. The first came on a simple screen pass: Brown caught the ball, took a jab step inside and when a swarm of defenders overcommitted, he turned and headed the other way, around a key block from Jesse James, and outran everyone. The second came on a simple slant route, when the Dolphins had single coverage on Brown, with one safety helping over the top. Roethlisberger sent Bell on a route as a diversion, fired a pass to Brown, and threw up his arms. Brown was at the 50-yard line, but Roethlisberger knew he’d score. Said Bell: “I’ll take A.B. one-on-one against anybody in this world.”
From there, the Steelers turned to Bell, a luxury they couldn’t turn to in years past. The last two years the Steelers made the playoffs, Bell sat out injured and the Steelers exited early. “It sucked [watching those playoff games],” Bell said, “because I look at plays back then where I think I could’ve made a difference here and there. Maybe a play wouldn’t have gotten called if I was in the game. Maybe I could’ve made a difference—some type of difference.”
On Sunday, on that third drive when the Steelers started feeding Bell the ball, his touchdown gave them a commanding 20–3 lead. He spent the rest of the game stiff-arming defenders, spinning around guys and dragging Dolphins for extra yards. “He’s the MVP for a reason,” Brown said, referring to how the Steelers voted Bell as their team MVP this season.
Bell kept feeling his way on the line, pausing, waiting for a hole to open. It’s his signature move, and it drives James Saxon, his position coach, crazy. “I’m standing back there,” Roethlisberger said, “and I’m watching him like, hey, are you going to go at anytime here?”
But it drove the Dolphins crazy, too, and it could give the Chiefs and Patriots fits, if they drop their safeties and put more energy into stopping Brown, not Bell. “I’m confident I’m going to get to where I’m going to get to,” Bell said. “The offensive line does a great job keeping those guys at the line of scrimmage for me, and it allows me to play with the ‘backers, set those guys up, and get them to the blocks I want to get them to, so I can get my gaps.”
Then Roethlisberger just has to hand Bell the ball. Roethlisberger tweaked his ankle and left the stadium in a walking boot. He assured the media he’d play next week, but he also noted how Charlie Batch, his former backup, had always told him how fun it was handing the ball to Barry Sanders. He could be healthy enough to do that. “So many times, I have the best view in the house,” Roethlisberger said. “… You give him the ball and sit back and watch.”
He was talking about Bell, but he may as well have been talking about Brown, too.