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Le'Veon Bell's Steel City Impact

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Bell is one of 10 players in the NFL averaging over 90 yards from scrimmage per game.

After the Steelers selected former Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell in the 2013 NFL Draft, Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley told the media that he views Bell as a "three-down back, which is a big thing for us. He looks like a workhorse back. He's not a guy that you'd shy away from giving it to him 30 times a game."

The Steelers running game was historically inept in 2012 for a franchise that prides themselves on a power running game. How inept you ask? Pittsburgh ranked 30th in the NFL in 2012 with a pathetic -43.48 Adjusted RNEP. The 2012 season was the Steelers second worst (-53.91 in 2003) in terms of the Adj. RNEP metric since 2000.

Pittsburgh's owners, the Rooney's, came out in the media requesting (or demanding) that the Steelers return to the running game as the staple of their offense in 2013. The front office granted their wish, selecting 6'2", 230-pound Le'Veon Bell 48th (2nd round) in the 2013 NFL Draft. Fantasy owners rejoiced at the prospects of a true three-down back, as Bell ascended up fantasy draft boards throughout the summer until suffering a foot injury in the Steelers preseason game against the Redskins.

Reports of a Lisfranc injury and season-ending surgery muddled the debut of the rookie runner. Bell would eventually only miss the first three games of the season, but until that time, the Steelers were back at square one in the running game, trotting out ineffective journeymen Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer.

Before Bell

The Steelers 0-3 start to the season had both fans and media alike calling for heads to roll in the Steel City. Turnovers, sacks and a porous defense contributed to the terrible start for the Steelers. In the running game, Pittsburgh recorded 3 of the 13 worst rushing performances in the NFL over the first three weeks of the season according to our Adjusted Net Expected Points metrics. You can see their declining output from week to week in the chart below.

WeekAdj. RNEPAdj. RNEP RankAdj. PNEPAdj. PNEP Rank
1-9.7530th0.6225th
2-15.3430th-2.8127th
3-21.5231st-11.5627th

The numbers above reflect both Adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points and Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points. These figures show how many points (or lack thereof) the Steelers were adding to their scoring output with each game, both on the ground and through the air. The “adjusted” portion of this metric is important, as it tells us that the numbers have been fixed for strength of opponent. Clearly, Pittsburgh was awful offensively.

Digging into the Metrics

Since Le'Veon Bell returned from his foot injury in Week 4, his rushing performances have varied from as high as 4.89 yards per carry to as low as 1.85 yards per carry. As of Week 13, Bell ranks 21st (-9.81) of 37 according to our Rushing NEP metric among running backs with more than 100 carries. Bell also ranks 26th in Rushing Success Rate at 38.36%. Compare that to fellow rookie Eddie Lacy, who has also missed time with injury, who ranks 18th in the metric. However, this can be as much of a blocking issue as a running back issue.

Though Bell's individual efficiency metrics haven't been spectacular, when you dig deeper, the impact Le'Veon Bell has had on the Steelers offense has been significant. Take a look at the Steelers' offensive numbers below since Bell returned.

WeekAdj. RNEPAdj. RNEP RankAdj. PNEPAdj. PNEP Rank
4-21.7630th-3.8823rd
6-21.7628th3.8322nd
7-15.3826th7.6721st
8-16.3726th4.5118th
9-16.1627th19.1716th
10-13.0726th13.8517th
11-19.6927th30.9113th
12-28.9829th41.0012th
13-28.2929th56.568th

It may appear that Bell's impact on the Steelers offense is not as drastic via the run as offensive coordinator Todd Haley was hoping for, as the Steelers are still ranked 29th in Adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points.

However, Le'Veon has made an incredible impact on the Steelers passing game. They have risen to the eight spot in Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points, up from 27th before Bell returned from injury. The most obvious impact Bell has had on the Steelers offense is the respect that opposing defensive coordinators are now giving to the run game, as well as his presence as a pass-catching running back. In fact, of those same 37 running backs with at least 100 carries, Bell ranks 11th in Target NEP, a metric that looks at how many points a player is adding on all targets.

While the rushing production itself may not be drastically different, the offense as a whole is functioning at a much higher level with Le'Veon in the lineup. They now sit with the 17th-best offense, up 10 spots since his return. They've increased their Adjusted NEP by 3.73 points per game since Bell became the lead back, which paces them as a top-12 team in the league offensively.

Despite the Steelers lack of rushing success, don't underestimate what Le'Veon Bell has done for Todd Haley's offense. Without him, the Steelers may be thinking about the 2014 NFL Draft rather than the 2013 wild-card round.

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In This Article

Ben Roethlisberger
QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Felix Jones
RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Isaac Redman
RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Jonathan Dwyer
RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Le'Veon Bell
RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Eddie Lacy
RB, Green Bay Packers

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