Can Le’Veon Bell fix the Steelers running game?

Perhaps the worst part of the Steelers’ Week 1 loss to the Tennessee Titans was the pitiful performance by the offense when it tried to run the football. The passing game wasn’t anything to celebrate (unless you love bubble screens), but the running game was the perfect storm of a weak offensive line that lost its best player early in the first quarter and a completely mediocre stable of running backs that unable to make chicken salad out of a steaming pile of chicken poop.

We at Steelers Lounge are always carrying the torch for the “running back are interchangeable” crowd, and I suppose that was true on Sunday. They were all equally bad and it didn’t matter which one was in the game.

The great hope at this point is that 2013 second-round draft pick Le’Veon Bell can step into the starting lineup and give the running game the shot in the arm it has desperately needed for two years now. The popular opinion around town at this point — and especially in the stadium on Sunday — is that he is already the best running back on the roster and will be able to step right into the starting lineup upon his return from injury and take over the No. 1 job.

Seeing as how running back is probably the easiest position in the NFL for a rookie to succeed this isn’t a completely crazy idea. Rookie running backs have success all the time in the NFL, and Bell certainly has the size and skill to be a quality NFL back.

But what should we expect from Bell when he is finally able to return for his rookie season?

Here is everything we know about Bell at this point:

– He was a second-round draft pick, a round the Steelers have badly struggled in over the past five years (Limas Sweed, Jason Worilds, Marcus Gilbert, and Mike Adams are the players that have preceded him in that round since 2008. Not one them can be considered an impact player at this point. In case you’re wondering, Sweed was last seen with the Saskatchewan Rough Riders of the CFL until he was suspended by the team for walking out of a practice.)

– He has carried the ball exactly three times in an NFL game, with all of them coming in one preseason game. He gained a total of five yards.

– He has already suffered two different leg/foot injuries during his first five months in the NFL.

– He carried the ball a lot during his final year at Michigan State and comes into the NFL with a little bit of wear and tear on the tires based on what he did a year ago.

How concerning should the latter two be when it comes to A) his durability and B) what he will be capable of in 2013?

Last season Michigan State called on Bell to carry the rock an incredible 382 times, a number that put him 10th on the NCAA’s all-time list for carries in a single season. Add in his 32 catches and four kick returns (seriously? They asked him to return kicks four times?) and he touched the football 418 times last season. That’s a lot of hits.

The folks at Football Outsiders have done some work in the past examining the impact carrying the ball 370 times in a season can have on NFL running backs, and how those players tend to either see a decline in their performance or an injury the following season. Could that workload in 2012 be a contributing factor in Bell’s two injuries this season?

Seeing as how we have an idea as to what impact that sort of workload has on NFL backs, I wanted to take a quick look at players that carried the ball that much in college and then made the jump to the pros and how they did during their rookie season.

After taking a quick stroll through the archives at College-Football-Reference, I found 28 running backs that carried the football at least 340 times in their final year of college. Here is the list, as well as their performance during their rookie season in the NFL.


Player Final College Season Carries NFL Rookie Carries NFL Rookie Yards NFL Rookie Average NFL Rookie Touchdowns
 Kevin Smith  450  238 976 4.1  8
Marcus Allen 433 160 697 4.4 11
Troy Davis 402 75 271 3.6 0
Shawn Faulkner 394 Never Played In NFL
Javon Ringer 390 8 48 6.0 0
Craig Heyward 387 74 355 4.8 1
Le’Veon Bell 382 Rookie This Season
Ray Rice 380 107 454 4.2 0
Stefphon Jefferson 375 Rookie This Season
Billy Smith 374 Never Played In NFL
Bobby Rainey 369 Never Played In NFL
LaDainian Tomlinson 369 339 1236 3.6 10
Donald Brown 367 78 281 3.6 3
Vaughn Dunbar 364 154 565 3.7 3
Steve Bartalo 362 9 30 3.3 0
Matt Forte 361 316 1238 3.9 8
Ricky Williams 361 253 884 3.5 2
Anthony Thompson 358 106 390 3.7 2
Wasean Tait 357 Never Played In NFL
Lorenzo White 357 31 115 3.7 0
Montee Ball 356 Rookie This Season
Travis Prentice 354 173 512 3.0 8
Steven Jackson 350 134 673 5.0 4
Brian Calhoun 348 7 19 2.7 0
Cecil Sapp 347 12 31 2.6 0
Paul Palmer 346 24 155 6.5 0
Barry Sanders 344 280 1470 5.3 14
Toby Gerhart 343 81 322 4.0 1

A few observations:

1) There are a handful of really good players on there, including some Hall of Famers (or future Hall of Famers) like Barry Sanders, Marcus Allen, LaDanian Tomlinson, and perhaps even Ray Rice and Steven Jackson.

2) There are also a lot of players that either struggled in their rookie season, fizzled out as pros, or never even had a chance to play in the NFL

3) Some of the successful backs like Rice, Allen, and Jackson were part-time players as rookies and shared the workload with another back.

None of this means that Bell is destined to be a bust or will have a lost rookie season. But when you combine his workload in college a season ago, the success of similar players in the past, his two injuries, and the fact he will be running behind the football verso of a screen door on a submarine, perhaps we should limit our expectations for what he will be capable of contributing this season.


This entry was posted in 2013 Steelers, Analysis, Offensive Line, Running Backs. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Rob D

    INteresting article..loved the chart..I think at this point, with this line and this OC, I expect Bell will be a slightly better version of Mendenhall. He’s not going to save our season or anything but he’s better than anything else we have on the roster by a wide margin. He has actual talent to be a No. 1 back with all that entails. I hope and pray he has a line that can block for him in an NFL manner. If our coaches aren’t burning the midnight oil as we speak…they should be.

    Boy, is this a HUGE game on Monday. It’s why we love the NFL. EVery game matters and an early loss can seem bigger than it actually is. But this game matters a lot. If the STeelers don’t respond with an inspired game, it could be the beginning of the end of their season and it’s only GAme 2…. wowsers! WE Steeler fans don’t do humiliation well at all. I’ve probably said more intemperate things this week than I’ve said all last year. For some reason, I’m on this “Ben’s prime is NOW” bandwagon and failure seems less acceptable than ever.

  • Intropy

    To answer your question, no Bell cannot fix the Steelers running game. Jim Thorpe could not run behind that line performing as it did Sunday. The run game will improve no matter who is running because it would take a concerted effort for the line to block that poorly on a regular basis.

    I’m also of the opinion that the kicking specialties are the easiest positions to learn, though running back isn’t too far behind.

    • drobviousso

      “The run game will improve no matter who is running because it would take a concerted effort for the line to block that poorly on a regular basis.”

      Yup. Its like if you have the flu for a few days, start drinking herbal tea on day 4, and the flu is gone on day 5 or 6. Easy to say the herbal tea did it, but really, flus just end after 5 or 6 days.

      I don’t think Bell is going to hurt, but people are talking about him like he’s going to be AP in black and gold. I really doubt it.

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    This is an interesting set of stats. Two things jump out at me:

    One, having one of the highest number of touches in college history doesn’t appear to be correlated with being injury-prone on the pros. Some of these guys panned out and some didn’t, but it doesn’t appear to be due to injuries that some guys didn’t succeed. So there doesn’t appear to be a curse of 370 that carries over from college to the NFL.

    Second, of the guys on this list who were drafted in the first two rounds, there seems to be a high number of good-to-great NFL running backs. Of the guys on this list who entered the league before this year, 14 were r1 or r2 picks and as Adam said, 5 are definite or borderline Hall of Famers. Add in Ricky Williams and Matt Forte, and that’s a very strong group. I’d bet that if you compared the careers of a random set of r1 and r2 RBs, this group would have a much better than average set of results.

    Putting these two observations together: maybe getting hit by smaller, slower college defenders isn’t as harmful as getting hit by huge, fast NFL defenders. And maybe getting lots of touches in college means a player has a lot of practice and more game film for scouts to watch, making them more likely to be successful pro running backs.

    While I’m still concerned about Bell’s foot, this puts to rest for me the idea that his college workload was a reason not to draft him.

    • EasyLikeSundayMorning

      The 7 good-to-great backs I mentioned of the 14 r1 and r2 picks didn’t include Ironhead Heyward or Lorenzo White. So it really is a strong group of early picks.

      Here’s when guys on Adam’s list were drafted:
      1. Kevin Smith, r3 (64)
      2. Marcus Allen, r1 (10), HOF
      3. Troy Davis, r3 (62)
      4. Shawn Faulkner (USFL?)
      5. Javon Ringer, r5 (173)
      6. Craig Heyward, r1 (24), Pro Bowl
      7. Le’Veon Bell 2013 rookie, r2 (48)
      8. Ray Rice, r2 (55), Pro Bowl
      9. Stefphon Jefferson (UDFA 2013)
      10. Billy Smith (undrafted?)
      11. Bobby Rainey (undrafted?)
      12. LaDainian Tomlinson, r1 (5), future HOF
      13. Donald Brown, r1 (27)
      14. Vaughn Dunbar, r1 (21)
      15. Steve Bartalo r6 (143)
      16. Matt Forte, r2 (44), Pro Bowl
      17. Ricky Williams, r1 (5), Pro Bowl
      18. Anthony Thompson, r2 (31) bust
      19. Wasean Tait (injured soph yr in college, undrafted)
      20. Lorenzo White r1 (22), Pro Bowl
      21. Montee Ball 2013 rookie, r2 (58)
      22. Travis Prentis, r3 (63)
      23. Steven Jackson, r1 (24), Pro Bowl
      24. Brian Calhoun, r3 (74)
      25. Cecil Sapp (undrafted)
      26. Paul Palmer, r1 (19)
      27. Barry Sanders, r1 (3), HOF
      28. Toby Gerhart, r2 (51)

      • EasyLikeSundayMorning

        An optimistic way of looking at this list is that 8 of the 12 guys drafted ahead of Bell’s spot (48th overall) at least made the Pro Bowl. The pessimistic view is that 1 of the 8 guys on this list drafted after 48th overall (and none of the undrafted guys) made the Pro Bowl. It is a small overall sample, but it at least seems like an inflection point. If Bell performs like the average of the first set of 12, he’ll have one of the best careers for a Steelers RB. If he performs like the average of the second set of 8, it will be viewed as a wasted pick.

        • Eric

          Well, if we’re being optimistic, running backs in recent years are being drafted later than they traditionally were. So if there is an inflection point, it might have dropped back some.