Le’Veon Bell’s continued absence from the Pittsburgh Steelers has his teammates upset and the organisation frustrated, but with Week 1 of the season already upon them, the team has no choice but to move on and figure out how to win without one of their top playmakers.
When Pittsburgh face AFC North foes the Cleveland Browns on Sunday to open their campaign, they’ll be without the ball-carrying and receiving skills of Bell.
In his place, James Conner is expected to start and get the majority of the workload in the backfield.
The second-year player saw little work last year after the Steelers drafted him in the third round, finishing with just 32 carries for 144 yards (4.5 average) and no receptions as Bell’s back-up.
This preseason though, Conner did a passable Bell impression by running for 100 yards on 19 carries, while adding 64 yards as a receiver.
“We did pretty good then, too,” Ben Roethlisberger said. “James is a year better than he was last year at this time. So I think we’re all excited for what he can bring to this offense and this team. We’ve got a lot of weapons. We’d like [Bell] out there, but we’ve got guys who can make plays for us.”
As important as Bell is to the offence – he’s averaged 128.9 yards per game in his first five years – Pittsburgh have managed to survive when he’s not been on the field during his career. The Steelers are 44-22 when he plays and 12-9 when he’s out, but their points per game are the same in both instances: 25.3.
In 2015 and 2016, when Bell totaled five games of suspension and missed another eight with a knee injury, Pittsburgh averaged 29.5 points with DeAngelo Williams as the workhorse back.
Williams racked up 1,105 rushing yards during that span, along with 53 receptions. For comparison, Williams averaged 23.1 catches in the seven seasons he played at least 13 games before joining the Steelers in 2015.
Conner can expect to see a similar type of workload as Pittsburgh have proven to be one of the few teams in the league that use their back-up running back in a similar vein as their star.
Bell, of course, is so valuable because he can do damage when lined up in other spots on the field, whether that’s out wide or in the slot. The Steelers may not deploy Conner like that, but the 23-year-old should be on the receiving end of plenty of dump-off passes and screens from Roethlisberger.
Pittsburgh also have more than enough talent at wide receiver to help ease the burden. Antonio Brown will be the usual target monster he always is, but there should be more opportunity for wideouts JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington to contribute as possession receivers tasked with the responsibility of moving the chains, rather than just picking up large chunks.
Smith-Schuster especially could see his role increase, in a somewhat similar fashion to the two games the Steelers were without Brown at the end of last season.
In the final two weeks, Smith-Schuster had 15 receptions on 17 targets for 218 yards and two touchdowns. He still stretched the field vertically with grabs of at least 46 yards in both games, but his average yards per reception was 14.5, compared to 16.2 the rest of the season.
All in all, the Steelers attack should remain extremely potent and dangerous – something that will be taken to another level when Bell eventually shows up.
Teams in the NFC South will have to earn everything this season in a division that is competitive from top to bottom.
Even the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are the division’s ‘weak spot’, have the offensive weapons to win any given week.
Learn more about the four teams with our NFC South team guides.
Head coach: Dan Quinn
Star player: Julio Jones
Last season: 10-6, lost in Divisional Round
Key ins: Justin Bethel (Arizona), Brandon Fusco (San Francisco), Calvin Ridley (rookie), Isaiah Oliver (rookie), Deadrin Senat (rookie)
Key outs: Adrian Clayborn (New England), Taylor Gabriel (Chicago), Dontari Poe (Carolina)
Strengths: Offence was the team’s calling card two years ago in their Super Bowl run, but the other side of the ball is emerging and full of young talent.
Weaknesses: Red zone inefficiency hurt them last season as they ranked 22nd in touchdown conversation rate (49.1 per cent).
Verdict: Offence has to get back near 2016 levels, otherwise they won’t have the firepower.
Head coach: Ron Rivera
Star player: Luke Kuechly
Last season: 11-5, lost in Wild Card round
Key ins: C.J. Anderson (Denver), Dontari Poe (Atlanta), Da’Norris Searcy (Tennessee), Torrey Smith (Philadelphia), D.J. Moore (rookie), Donte Jackson (rookie)
Key outs: Andrew Norwell (Jacksonville), Star Lotulelei (Buffalo), Jonathan Stewart (NY Giants), Charles Johnson (retired)
Strengths: Front seven remains the heartbeat of the team as they racked up the third-most sacks in the league last year (50).
Weaknesses: Injuries on the offensive line could haunt them all season.
Verdict: Will have a hard time matching last year’s record, but another playoff berth isn’t farfetched.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Head coach: Sean Payton
Star player: Drew Brees
Last season: 11-5, lost in Divisional round
Key ins: Teddy Bridgewater (NY Jets), Jermon Bushrod (Miami), Demario Davis (NY Jets), Cameron Meredith (Chicago), Patrick Robinson (Philadelphia), Ben Watson (Baltimore), Marcus Davenport (rookie)
Key outs: Kenny Vaccaro (Tennessee), Senio Kelemete (Houston), Willie Snead (Baltimore)
Strengths: Running game between Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram powers the rest of the offence.
Weaknesses: Are relying on rookie Davenport to make a major impact with his pass rush right away.
Verdict: Arguably the most balanced team in the league with few holes on the roster.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Head coach: Dirk Koetter
Star player: Gerald McCoy
Last season: 5-11
Key ins: Jason Pierre-Paul (NY Giants), Vita Vea (rookie), Ronald Jones (rookie)
Key outs: Clinton McDonald (Denver), Doug Martin (Oakland), Robert Ayers (free agent), Chris Baker (free agent), Joe Hawley (retired), Robert McClain (free agent), T.J. Ward (free agent)
Strengths: Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick have an explosive group of pass-catchers to throw to.
Weaknesses: Pass defence last year was horrific as they ranked last in yards allowed (260.6) and sacks (22).
Verdict: Jobs appear to be on the line this season, from the field to the sidelines to the front office, and everyone has reason to be worried.
After years of being the weakest division in football, the AFC South has slowly morphed into one of the more competitive areas in the league.
All four teams have a chance to reach the playoffs – a notion that would have been laughable as recent as three years ago.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, as one-sided as they are, are legitimate threats to get back to the AFC Championship Game, while the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts have their star quarterbacks back and healthy.
A regime change in Tennessee could give the Titans the jolt they need to find their stride.
Learn more about the four teams with our AFC South team guides.
Head coach: Bill O’Brien
Star player: J.J. Watt
Last season: 4-12
Key ins: Tyrann Mathieu (Arizona), Aaron Colvin (Jacksonville), Zach Fulton (Kansas City), Senio Kelemete (New Orleans), Kayvon Webster (LA Rams), Justin Reid (rookie), Martinas Rankin (rookie), Jordan Akins (rookie)
Key outs: Brian Cushing (free agent), Xavier Su’a-Filo (free agent)
Strengths: If Watt can return to something of his old self, their front seven will wreak chaos.
Weaknesses: Allowed the second-most sacks in the league last year (54) and offensive line hasn’t improved much.
Verdict: Deshaun Watson, when he’s upright, makes them an intriguing playoff contender.
Head coach: Frank Reich
Star player: Andrew Luck
Last season: 13-3
Key ins: Luck (injury), Ryan Kelly (injury) Eric Ebron (Detroit), Matt Slauson (LA Chargers), Ryan Grant (Washington), Najee Goode (Philadelphia), Quenton Nelson (rookie), Braden Smith (rookie), Jordan Wilkins (rookie)
Key outs: Jon Bostic (Pittsburgh), Frank Gore (Miami), Johnathan Hankins (free agent), Donte Moncrief (Jacksonville), Darius Butler (free agent), Rashaan Melvin (Oakland)
Strengths: Interior of offensive line.
Weaknesses: Defence gave up the third-most points in the league last year (25.3).
Verdict: Don’t have enough around Luck to make much noise.
Head coach: Doug Marrone
Star player: Jalen Ramsey
Last season: 10-6, lost in AFC Championship
Key ins: Andrew Norwell (Carolina), Austin Seferian-Jenkins (NY Jets), Donte Moncrief (Indianapolis), D.J. Hayden (Detroit), Taven Bryan (rookie), D.J. Chark (rookie)
Key outs: Marqise Lee (injury), Patrick Omameh (NY Giants), Aaron Colvin (Houston), Allen Hurns (Dallas), Chris Ivory (Buffalo), Marcedes Lewis (Green Bay), Allen Robinson (Chicago)
Strengths: Defence is rife with talent, particularly the secondary
Weaknesses: Pass-catchers are maybe the worst in the league.
Verdict: Defence can carry, but unless Blake Bortles takes a step, their ceiling is capped by his limitations.
Head coach: Mike Vrabel
Star player: Jurrell Casey
Last season: 9-7, lost in Divisional Round
Key ins: Malcolm Butler (New England), Dion Lewis (New England), Bennie Logan (Kansas City), Kenny Vaccaro (New Orleans), Will Compton (Washington), Rashaan Evans (rookie), Harold Landry (rookie)
Key outs: Johnathan Cyprien (injury), DeMarco Murray (retired), Avery Williamson (NY Jets), Da’Norris Searcy (Carolina), Erik Walden (Seattle)
Strengths: Run defence is stout as they surrendered fourth-fewest yards on the ground last year (88.8).
Weaknesses: Unproven wideouts.
Verdict: Changes across the coaching staff should help get more out of their collection of talent.