Steel­ers will need to be flex­i­ble if Bell re­turns

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Mike Jones

Le’Veon Bell en­sured that the in­trigue re­gard­ing his po­ten­tial con­tin­ues as he is­sued a cou­ple of cryp­tic tweets Wed­nes­day night, the day af­ter he bid his off­sea­son home of Mi­ami farewell.

Bell has re­turned to the Pitts­burgh area but hasn’t vis­ited Steel­ers head­quar­ters, per mul­ti­ple re­ports.

But the Bell watch very well could soon end, be­cause the dis­grun­tled run­ning back must re­port by Tues­day if he is to play at all this sea­son. If the all-pro does re­turn rather than de­cide to re­main out, coach Mike Tom­lin and his staff have a predica­ment.

The Steel­ers started off slow this sea­son but have won four con­sec­u­tive games and five of their last six. Mean­while, Bell’s re­place­ment James Con­ner has thrived, rush­ing for 706 yards and nine touch­downs.

Con­ner, who has topped the 100yard mark in each of the last four games, has earned the re­spect and con­fi­dence of his team­mates and coaches alike.

“The kid, to be com­pletely hon­est, he just has a fo­cus about him,” of­fen­sive guard Ra­mon Fos­ter told USA

TO­DAY when asked about Con­ner two weeks ago. “He wants to be good. He wants to be that guy. You can tell it’s in him. I love watch­ing him run be­cause he has a pas­sion about him. It’s not just us.”

But each week that Con­ner has shined, the ques­tion resurfaces: Do the Steel­ers re­ally need Bell? And what hap­pens to Con­ner if Bell re­turns?

The an­swer to the first ques­tion is yes. The Steel­ers ab­so­lutely need Bell, a three-time Pro Bowl se­lec­tion who is com­ing off back-to-back sea­sons with at least 1,200 yards rush­ing and 600 yards re­ceiv­ing. With high-pow­ered of­fenses in Kansas City and New Eng­land po­ten­tially stand­ing in the way this post­sea­son, Pitts­burgh will need all of the help it can get.

The sec­ond ques­tion, how­ever, doesn’t have to be an ei­ther/or propo­si­tion. Con­ner and Bell can co­ex­ist.

The Steel­ers first must make sure Bell is in game shape, and it could take some time for him to round into form. But once he is ready, Tom­lin has a chance to field one of the most dom­i­nant back­fields in the league.

A two-back sys­tem can work in the NFL. Just look to the hottest team in the league, the Saints, who use Mark In­gram and Alvin Ka­mara.

Last year, In­gram rushed for 1,200 yards and 12 TDs as the bruis­ing back. The faster Ka­mara pro­vided an­other di­men­sion and ex­cep­tional pass­catch­ing abil­ity while ac­count­ing for 1,554 yards from scrim­mage (728 rush­ing, 826 re­ceiv­ing) and 13 TDs. The two have been tremen­dously ef­fec­tive work­ing in tan­dem this sea­son.

In­gram and Ka­mara thrive si­mul­ta­ne­ously be­cause coach Sean Pay­ton un­der­stands sit­u­a­tional foot­ball and iden­ti­fies the best way to cap­i­tal­ize on an op­po­nent’s weak­nesses. Pay- ton ro­tates his backs and knows how to use one to set up the other for a big gain. There are even times when they’re on the field at the same time, which can cre­ate even more headaches for op­po­nents.

Like­wise, Bell and Con­ner have dif­fer­ent styles and can at­tack de­fenses in a va­ri­ety of ways. Pitts­burgh could use Con­ner as the in­side run­ner just as the Saints use In­gram. And since Bell likely will want to limit his work­load and in­jury risk, Tom­lin can de­ploy him as a change-of-pace back and pass-catch­ing threat out of the back­field, just as New Or­leans does with Ka­mara.

Line them up in the back­field to­gether at times. Send Bell in mo­tion and line him up as re­ceiver. Do you key on Bell as a de­fense? On Con­ner?

But one thing should be clear: Con­ner shouldn’t lose his start­ing job. He’s been pro­duc­ing all sea­son. His team­mates re­spect and ap­pre­ci­ate him and know he’s in this with them. Bell made the de­ci­sion that he be­lieved was best for him, and now he must work his way back into the good graces of oth­ers in the or­ga­ni­za­tion. If he ac­cepts what­ever role he re­ceives, all will be well in the Steel City.

Great sit­u­a­tion for Bryant

Speak­ing of New Or­leans, the Saints showed that they’re not sat­is­fied with their al­ready po­tent of­fense when they signed wide re­ceiver Dez Bryant on Wed­nes­day.

There are some around the league who don’t see Bryant, out of work since he was re­leased by the Cowboys in April, as a dif­fer­ence maker, even in a No. 2 or 3 role. De­spite his track record, some for­mer op­po­nents have said he doesn’t get off the line as well as he once did.

But Bryant still has a chance to make his mark in New Or­leans. He just turned 30 and might not be a down­field burner, but he still could be a threat. Bryant does some of his best work snag­ging short passes and then run­ning af­ter the catch. Sim­i­lar op­por­tu­ni­ties should arise with Drew Brees throw­ing to him.

The Saints also have a true No. 1 re­ceiver in Michael Thomas. His pres­ence means Bryant no longer will com­mand the at­ten­tion of the top op­pos­ing cor­ner­back.

Bryant has one of the great­est of­fen­sive minds in the league as his head coach and a quar­ter­back still at the top of his game in Brees. He should pro­duce for the Saints.

Fal­cons fly­ing high again?

Af­ter a 1-4 start to the sea­son, the Fal­cons ap­pear to have hit their stride and now have won three con­sec­u­tive games.

Paving the way for their suc­cess is an of­fense that has net­ted 400 yards and av­er­aged 31 points per game in the on­go­ing streak.

Peo­ple within the or­ga­ni­za­tion point to two fac­tors: stel­lar play from Matt Ryan and great lead­er­ship from the quar­ter­back dur­ing the week.

Ryan is post­ing ca­reer highs in com­ple­tion per­cent­age

(70.8) and yards per game

(335.6). That suc­cess par­tially stems from his con­nec­tion with his weapons be­yond re­ceiver Julio Jones.

Ryan has brought along young play­ers like rookie wide re­ceiver Calvin Ri­d­ley, who leads the team with seven TD catches, run­ning backs Tevin Cole­man and Ito Smith and tight end Austin Hooper. As a re­sult of their ex­tra post-prac­tice work, the quar­ter­back feels more com­fort­able with them in games and has done a bet­ter job of tak­ing what’s avail­able to him rather than forc­ing the ball to Jones or Mo­hamed Sanu in less-than-ideal sit­u­a­tions.

This ap­proach has led to im­prove­ment in the red zone, where the Fal­cons rank sev­enth in the league this sea­son, scor­ing on 69 per­cent of their trips in­side the 20.

CHARLES LECLAIRE/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Le’Veon Bell is back in Pitts­burgh but not at Steel­ers head­quar­ters.

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