Steel­ers bet­ter off with Bell

Re­cent suc­cess doesn’t mean team shouldn’t want him to re­turn

Daily Press - - Sports - By Mark Maske The Wash­ing­ton Post

Things are go­ing very well for the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers.

So well that quar­ter­back Ben Roeth­lis­berger earned him­self an early exit from Thurs­day night’s lop­sided tri­umph at home over the Carolina Pan­thers with five touch­down passes, only three in­com­ple­tions and a per­fect passer rat­ing of 158.3.

So well that they scored their most points ever at Heinz Field and the most points by an NFL team this sea­son by over­whelm­ing the Pan­thers 52-21. So well that they ex­tended their win­ning streak to five games and didn’t even need a fifth straight 100-yard rush­ing per­for­mance by sec­ond-year tail­back James Con­ner to do it. So well that the NFL’s catch rule ac­tu­ally worked in their fa­vor this time.

So well that they don’t seem to need Le’Veon Bell these days.

But they should want him back. The Steel­ers, af­ter a su­perb week in which they fol­lowed Sun­day’s tri­umph at Bal­ti­more with a dom­i­nat­ing per­for­mance Thurs­day against an NFC play­off con­tender, now have a mini-bye be­fore play­ing again.

The fo­cus shifts tem­po­rar­ily to the res­o­lu­tion of the Bell drama. He has been ab­sent from the team all sea­son, re­fus­ing to sign his fran­chise­player deal that would have paid him $14.544 mil­lion this sea­son. He must re­port to the team and sign his con­tract by Tues­day to be el­i­gi­ble to play this sea­son, un­der NFL rules.

It’s easy to watch this of­fense and watch Con­ner, Bell’s pro­duc­tive re­place­ment at run­ning back, and say that the Steel­ers are bet­ter off with­out Bell. His ab­sence ran­kled team­mates. It led coach Mike Tom­lin to say that the team needs vol­un­teers, not hostages. Work­ing Bell back into the mix would not be seam­less. He should not sup­plant Con­ner as the cen­ter­piece run­ner.

“Con­ner has earned the right to start,” Hall of Fame quar­ter­back Troy Aik­man said dur­ing the Fox broad­cast Thurs­day night. “He’s earned the right to play.”

But Bell is a gifted player, both as a pass-catcher and as a run­ner. For the Steel­ers, this ul­ti­mately is about match­ing up with the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots and the Kansas City Chiefs, the AFC’s top two teams. It’s about reach­ing the Su­per Bowl. Hav­ing

Bell back and work­ing him into the of­fense with Con­ner would cre­ate in­ter­est­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties. If Bell shows up rather than sit­ting out the sea­son, the Steel­ers should be happy about it and they should go to work find­ing a role for him.

Con­ner had his 10th rush­ing touch­down of the sea­son Thurs­day night, one more than Bell ever has had in an NFL sea­son. Con­ner’s string of 100-yard rush­ing games ended with his 13-carry, 65-yard out­ing. He re­turned to the game af­ter be­ing taken to the med­i­cal tent on the Steel­ers’ side­line, but later was taken to the locker room, and the Steel­ers said he was be­ing eval­u­ated for a pos­si­ble con­cus­sion.

Roeth­lis­berger and the pass­ing game took cen­ter stage Thurs­day. Roeth­lis­berger threw a 75-yard touch­down pass to wide re­ceiver JuJu Smith-Schus­ter on the Steel­ers’ first of­fen­sive play. That put Roeth­lis­berger on his way to a 22-for-25, 328-yard pass­ing night.

Roeth­lis­berger did face some third-quar­ter peril when he strayed from the pocket and was hit by Pan­thers safety Eric Reid on his slide at the end of a run. The of­fi­cials ejected Reid for the hit to Roeth­lis­berger’s head, and other Steel­ers play­ers were an­gered by Reid’s play. But Roeth­lis­berger ab­sorbed only a glanc­ing blow. He stood up im­me­di­ately and re­mained in the game, and ap­peared to ac­cept Reid’s on-field apol­ogy.

It was a night in which just about ev­ery­thing went the Steel­ers’ way. That in­cluded tight end Vance McDon­ald be­ing awarded a thirdquar­ter touch­down catch on a play in which re­plays showed the foot­ball shift­ing slightly in his hands as he slid out of bounds in the back of the end zone.

The NFL fi­nally re­made its con­tro­ver­sial catch rule in the off­sea­son fol­low­ing a 2017 sea­son in which the non-catch by Steel­ers tight end Jesse James dur­ing a key game against the Pa­tri­ots be­came the lat­est con­found­ing rul­ing to fuel the “what’s a catch?” de­bate.

When the new rule was for­mu­lated, NFL of­fi­cials said that slight move­ment of the foot­ball in the re­ceiver’s hands dur­ing a catch would not re­sult in a no-catch rul­ing via re­play, as long as the re­ceiver main­tains con­trol of the foot­ball. That’s pre­cisely what hap­pened on McDon­ald’s catch Thurs­day night, and the on-field call of a touch­down was not over­turned on the re­play re­view that au­to­mat­i­cally fol­lows a scor­ing play.

One might say the Steel­ers were owed that touch­down.

It was just one of many things that went in their fa­vor Thurs­day.

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