On a snowy Sunday in upstate New York, Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell had himself a career day, rushing for 236 yards and three scores, adding another four catches for 62 yards receiving. It was the kind of game kids dream about when they grow up, trudging through the snow, trucking defenders for touchdown after touchdown, leading their team to victory over the kids from two blocks over.
The trip to Buffalo was a little farther than two blocks, but Bell was still up for the trudging, and the trucking, en route to his best day as a professional, amassing 298 yards from scrimmage on 42 touches.
Bell rightly gave credit to the Steelers’ offensive line for opening holes all day, helping him power into the end zone on his first touchdown and leaving him completely untouched on his next two.
“We had a game plan coming into this game. I think it worked really well. You’ve got to give a lot of credit to the guys up front,” Bell said after Sunday’s win. “Those guys did a great job opening holes, making my job a lot easier, getting to the second level. I think it was a whole total team effort.”
Bell can give a nod to whomever he wants — and surely his blockers deserve a lot of credit — but his performance over the last month has been the headline grabber. He now has 1,053 yards rushing on 218 carries this season, in just 10 games. Heading into Monday night’s game between Baltimore and New England, Bell is one of just five backs to cross the 1,000-yard mark so far this season (Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount enters Monday needing just 43 yards to join them.)
He is one of just two backs this season, along with Dallas rookie Ezekiel Elliott, to average more than 100 yards per game. Bell and Elliott are the only backs in the NFL averaging over 20 attempts per contest, but while Elliott is outpacing the league by several hundred yards on the ground — totaling 1,392 rushing yards on 287 carries — he has just 28 receptions on the year for 322 yards, giving him 1,714 yards from scrimmage and 13 scores in 13 games. Arizona’s David Johnson has 1,085 yards rushing in 13 games, adding 745 receiving yards, for 1,830 yards from scrimmage this season.
Bell has 563 yard receiving on 67 catches this season, giving him 1,616 yards from scrimmage and seven scores…again, in just 10 games.
Bell missed the first three games of the season while suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Bell missed three different drug tests last year, triggering the suspension. Initially, his punishment was slated for four games, but upon appeal it was lessened to three.
Bell’s numbers have come in bunches, with the bulk of his yards (and scores) coming in the last four weeks. Prior to Week 11, Bell had just one game over 100 yards — his 144-yard outburst in the first game he returned from suspension — and he didn’t find the end zone until his two-score game in a loss to Dallas in Week 10.
Prior to Week 11’s victory at Cleveland, Bell had just 433 yards rushing on 100 attempts. That averaged out to 16.7 carries per game, well below his average since, and while he was catching a lot of balls out of the backfield in his first six games this season — 45 receptions for 360 yards, or 7.5 receptions per game — he hadn’t yet found a consistent rhythm carrying the ball. The Steelers’ record in games Bell played through the first 10 weeks was 2-4.
With Bell getting more touches, and more yards, the Steelers are 4-0 since.
In the last four games, Bell has carried the ball 118 times — that’s 29.5 carries per game (!!!) — for 620 yards on the ground, an average of 5.25 yards per rush. He also has 22 catches since Week 11 for 203 yards, giving him 823 yards of offense and five touchdowns in just the last four weeks.
Bell’s 620 yards over the past month would rank 22nd in the NFL and his yards from scrimmage would rank 21st among running backs…the entire season.
Let’s not forget, the NFL is a passing league now, so any 100-yard game by a running back seems like something to celebrate. Through all but one game of Week 14 — that’s 414 combined team games this season — there have been just 78 100-yard rushing performances.
Bell has five.
(Fun fact: of those 78 100-yard rushing games, the team with a 100-yard rusher is 57-20-1 this season, with six of those losses coming in games where the winning team also had a 100-yard rusher. The Steelers are 5-0 when they have a 100-yard rusher this season.)
Just 21 times this season has a back rushed for 140 yards or more. Bell has done that three times.
Bell’s 236 yards against Buffalo was not only the top mark this season, it was just the third time all year a back has passed the 200-yard mark, with Miami’s Jay Ajayi rushing for 204 and 214 yards in back-to-back weeks earlier in the season.
According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Bell’s rushing performance on Sunday ranks 23rd in NFL history in terms of single-game rushing yards, the most in an NFL game since Doug Martin’s 251 in 2012. (Martin had just 21 receiving yards in that game.) In fact, of the 22 rushing games in NFL history better than Bell’s on Sunday, just one accounted for more yards from scrimmage: Adrian Pederson’s 296 rushing and 19 receiving yards against the Chargers in 2007, the greatest rushing performance in NFL history.
In 2009, Cleveland’s Jerome Harrison rushed for 286 yards against the Chiefs, more than Bell this week by some margin, but had just 12 receiving yards, to tie Bell for 298 yards from scrimmage.
Since 1960, just 12 players have totaled 298 yards from scrimmage in a single game, including Antonio Brown against the Raiders last season. Only six of those players are running backs.
Bell is clearly one of the top backs in football when he’s on the field, but it’s hard to believe he’s played in just 45 games in his career, playing in just 13 games as a rookie, then missing 10 games last year and the first four games to start this season. With Sunday’s game, Bell now has 13 career 100-plus yard games and two 200-plus yard games rushing, with 10 games of at least 150 yards from scrimmage.
This season, Bell has gotten better as the games have gone on. He’s averaging 5.8 yards per carry on attempts 21-30 of a game, and is racking up 5.2 yards per carry on the road, with five of his six rushing touchdowns coming away from Heinz field.
Bell is averaging 4.5 yards per carry on first down, 4.9 on second down and 6.7 on third down, with 10 of his 21 third-down runs resulting in a first down. Of his 12 attempts on third or fourth and short, he’s averaging 4.4 yards per carry and has eight first downs and a touchdown. With three or fewer yards to go on any down, Bell has 18 first downs, four touchdowns, on 23 attempts.
When the Steelers need tough yards, Bell has delivered.
Bell has a chance to do something special this season. With three games left in the regular season, he’s on pace to pass his 2014 output of 1,361 yards rushing and has an outside chance of eclipsing his record-setting yards-from-scrimmage total of 2,215, set that same year. In just 13 games!
The Steelers may need to win all three of their remaining contests just to make the playoffs, and while Baltimore looms on Christmas afternoon — the best run defense in the league, which stymied Bell in their first meeting by holding him to just 32 yards on the ground — the Steelers get the Bengals and their 25th-ranked run defense, and the Browns, the second-worst rush defense in the league and a team Bell ran up 146 yards on four weeks ago.
First things first, and records aside, Pittsburgh needs to focus on making the playoffs, and riding Bell is surely the best way to get there. In games Bell has more than 20 touches this season, the Steelers are 6-2. In games he has more than 30, they are 3-1.
If the Steelers give Bell the ball, good things happen. And if it snows again…watch out, record books.