Although James Conner was a revelation in his first career start for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Tomlin’s squad missed Le’Veon Bell’s contributions in the passing game.
The Cleveland Browns look like an improved team with Tyrod Taylor at the helm and a hungry defense led by rookie cornerback Denzel Ward, but the Pittsburgh Steelers disappointed in Week 1 by tying 21-21 with 2017’s winless team.
Second-year running back James Conner was one of the few standouts for the Steelers, as he led the way with 135 rushing yards on 31 carries, scoring two touchdowns to help the cause. Conner looked like a workhorse, yard-chewing machine on Sunday, solidifying his status as a hometown favorite.
Meanwhile, regular starter Le’Veon Bell reacted to the tie on Twitter with a “monocle.” Bell is on a holdout, because he believes he’s worth more guaranteed money than the Steelers are willing to pay for a running back.
The crux of Bell’s argument lies in his belief that he isn’t just a running back, but rather a multi-faceted offensive weapon who is equally gifted at moving the chains as an aerial threat.
While Sunday’s performance from Conner may have shown that the Steelers can thrive without Bell’s enviable work on the ground, Bell can make the case that the Steelers missed his ability to move the chains as a safety valve for Ben Roethlisberger.
As usual, Big Ben had no trouble putting up lofty yardage stats, dropping 335 passing yards on the Browns defense. He made liberal use of star wide receivers Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, who each had over 90 yards of receiving.
It’s worth noting, however, that Roethlisberger threw three interceptions against the Browns, as he was victimized by Denzel Ward on multiple occasions. Roethlisberger made some poor reads and clearly didn’t look confident under center. It was an uncharacteristic performance by the Steelers star quarterback.
Watching Roethlisberger struggle made me wonder just how much the Steelers missed Bell in the passing game. In a league where moveable chess pieces are becoming increasingly valued by offenses, Bell is one of the most valuable hybrids, given his ability to line up as a slot receiver or keep the ball moving out of the backfield.
Last season, Bell caught a career-high 85 passes, placing him second on the Steelers behind Antonio Brown. He averaged nine receptions per game in 2017 in games when Roethlisberger threw for over 300 yards, and he was a reliable target for Roethlisberger against a defense is usually troublesome for signal-callers in the Jacksonville Jaguars.
On a day where Roethlisberger struggled, Bell’s absence in the passing game stood out. He is so good at creating explosive plays out of the backfield and being there in a pinch.
While Conner did a commendable job in catching five passes for 57 yards on six targets, the Browns didn’t seem to worry as much about Conner. Note that this Browns defense was 30th at defending running backs in the passing game last season, per Football Outsider’s DVOA allowed.
Against any other opponent, the Steelers would have been punished more dearly for their turnovers on offense, and I’m sure the rainy conditions favored their defense’s ability to prevent the Browns from scoring more points.
I cannot stress enough that Conner looked the part at running back, but there’s something extra that Bell brings to the table in the passing game and as an explosive playmaker out of the backfield. One big run or reception can mean the difference between victory or defeat, particularly if Roethlisberger is having an off day in unfavorable weather against a division rival.
Whether or not the difference between Bell’s contributions in the passing game and his big-play potential are worth the vast price difference between Conner and him, remains to be seen. This is a talking point worth watching in Week 2 when the Steelers take on Kansas City Chiefs. If the Steelers don’t need Bell to keep up with Mahomes, then that might be a loss for Bell to swallow at the bargaining table when he hits free agency next year.