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Written By Sal Conti                            Follow on Twitter at : @SC2_DFW

The Pittsburgh Steelers have consistently been one of the NFL’s most respected teams. They’ve made it to the playoffs 4 times in the past 6 seasons, winning with heart, toughness, and grit. Making a rich tradition richer.

Unlike the Pittsburgh teams of the past however, they have lacked that symbol of toughness and strength in their offense in the past 5 or 6 seasons.

I’m talking about a smash-mouth work-horse running RB. Willie Parker had a couple of Pro Bowl seasons in ’06 and ’07; Rashard Mendenhall was serviceable during his tenure in Black and Gold. Other than that though, running has not been a strong suit for Pittsburgh.

I think the Steelers have finally found the guy to bring back the boom back to their running game, Le’Veon Bell.

Bell was taken with the 16th pick in the 2nd round, 48th overall in the draft. He was the second running back taken off the board, ahead of more well-known names like Eddie Lacy and Montee Ball.

I can’t blame Pittsburgh for taking this kid. He’s a monster-sized running back at 6’1”, 230 pounds, and accompanies his size very well with sneaky lateral agility and elite overall athleticism for a running back of his size.

With Le’Veon inheriting the starting RB gig in Pittsburgh, what impact will he make?

Opportunities for Bell to run the ball in Pittsburgh will come in droves. The Steelers ran the ball 412 times last year, over 20 carries more than their opponents did collectively. Quarterback Ben Roethlesburger is the centerpiece of the franchise right now, but a good tough-nosed running back is a must in that offense. Bell can carry the load of the NFL rushing attack and also catch passes out of the backfield.

Le’Veon took 382 handoffs at Michigan State this past season. This is the most by any back in Division I since 2008! He also finished 5th in rushing yards this past season with 1,793. For me, production isn’t an issue. What encourages me even more about Le’Veon is that he will work with a better offensive line. Michigan State’s offensive line was mediocre to say the least. That’s not to say that the Steelers have the best of offensive lineman, but Bell could see holes open up quicker and easier in the running game.

One of the most important qualities to a running back’s game is short-distance agility and quickness. Bell excelled in both of those categories, on tape and at the NFL Combine. He ran the 3-Cone Drill in 6.75 seconds, only .006 seconds away from the fastest time. In the past 6 NFL Combines, we’ve seen some of the NFL’s most productive running backs have strong 3 Cone Drill times, namely: Ray Rice, Stevan Ridley, Doug Martin and Jamaal Charles. This could be an indicator of success for Bell, especially given that he runs with more power than any of those current-Pro Bowl RBs, besides Martin.

Bell displayed an exceptional ability to make sharp cuts and make-you-miss moves in his games, especially against Boise State and Iowa. It was borderline impossible for cornerbacks and safeties to tackle him once he got to the next level on long runs; he’s just too big and strong, let alone quick as well. I see this trend continuing in the NFL. The secondary player with the most combined tackles in the AFC North last season (besides those on the Steelers) was S Reggie Nelson from the Bengals with 85. There aren’t any corners and safeties that will stop Le’Veon Bell at the second level, unless they have help. Period.

 

While his size plays to many advantages for Bell, it also makes him more of a target for defenses. He’s going to learn very early on in his career that pad level will be the difference from him being a good running back or a great running back. There are plenty of front-7s in the AFC North that are licking their chops, waiting to put a stick on the 6’1” Bell. If he doesn’t lower his pads when he runs, he’s going to get rocked early and often. This is a classic situation of the college player that plays with flaws because he can get away with them.

Bell’s ability to break tackles will also be tested by the vastly-improved front-7s he will face in the NFL. He never ran through a Geno Atkins-type in college, hasn’t stiff armed James Harrison, and is yet to juke Rey Maulaga out of his shoes. For any running back to carry the rock 20-25 times a game against the AFC North’s monsters is a tall order. I believe in Bell, but he’ll go through a learning curve in the tackle-breaking department for sure.

Bell’s vision must also improve in order to avoid major collisions and gain as many yards possible on a given run. Some of the defenses Michigan State faced were putrid. Bell ran for 200+ yards in THREE games this season, all against teams that had no substantial players on their defensive fronts (Eastern Michigan, Boise State, and Minnesota).

I like Bell from a fantasy standpoint. He’ll make for a solid RB3 right away. In the future, as he becomes a better pass blocker, runs with a lower pad level and develops more vision of running lanes, Le’Veon Bell could be SCARY good. He has a rare combination of size, agility and power.

Bell is in my Top 3 rookie running backs for this season, and could prove to be a RB1 in the years to come.