There is only one player in the history of professional football that has averaged at least 100 rushing yards per game and at least 50 receiving yards per game. That man is Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell, and he is a problem.
AFC Championship Game
- Who: Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) at New England Patriots (14-2)
- When: Sunday, Jan. 22, 6:40 p.m. ET (CBS)
- Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachussetts
- How to Watch: CBS All Access
- Latest Line: The Patriots are six-point favorites, according to SportsLine
Best season ever?
Bell finished this season with 1,261 rushing yards and 616 receiving yards in 12 games. That's a full-season pace of 2,512 yards from scrimmage -- a figure that would surpass Chris Johnson's 2009 season for the most in a single season.
Those numbers don't quite do him justice, though. Breaking Bell's season down into segments paints a clearer picture of how much more of a burden he has been shouldering of late and how he has taken that burden in stride while rocketing his production through the roof.
| Playoffs ||59||337||4||3||31.0||170.0|
There's typically a trade-off between usage and efficiency, but Bell hasn't experienced it this season. While averaging just over 24 touches per game between Weeks 4 and 10, he averaged 5.5 yards. His per-touch average didn't drop when he saw his usage rise nearly eight touches per game across Weeks 11 through 16, but actually rose to 5.7. Even in the playoffs, when teams typically face better defenses, Bell has barely dropped off: He's still at 5.4 yards on 31 touches a week.
What makes Bell so effective?
Three things make Bell so tough to stop: versatility, patience and an elite offensive line.
Let's tackle the line first. The Cowboys' group up front gets more attention than every other line in the league combined, but the Steelers have proven themselves this season to be worthy contemporaries of the Dallas line. Pittsburgh yielded only 21 sacks this season while posting a 4.1 percent Adjusted Sack Rate, per Football Outsiders, the fourth-best figure in the NFL.
While that's impressive, the Steelers' offensive line was even better as a run-blocking unit: They ranked fifth in Pro Football Focus' run-blocking grades and second in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards, which assigns credit to the offensive line based on a percentage of yards gained per carry. In power situations (third or fourth down, 2 or fewer yards to go or any goal-to-go situation inside the 2-yard line), the Steelers converted for a first down or touchdown 71 percent of the time, seventh in the NFL. Their rush attempts were stuffed behind the line of scrimmage only 15 percent of the time, fourth-best in the NFL.
The strength of the run-blocking group is right up the middle. Guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro and center Maurkice Pouncey throw defensive linemen around all game, and they rarely let anyone break through into the backfield. It's their presence and their push that allows Bell to weaponize his greatest and rarest skill.
VIDEO: Le'Veon Bell needs to get his Xbox controller fixed LOL... pic.twitter.com/xTlYYH60n8— Benstonium (@Benstonium) January 9, 2017
There really is nobody like Bell, stylistically, in the NFL. He almost never hits the hole going full speed, which for most backs is a criticism but for him is actually a feature of his running style. He has the innate ability to come to a near-complete stop before the line of scrimmage, find the correct rushing lane with his otherworldly vision, and then shoot through it before anyone has a chance to get a hand on him. Nobody else is doing it because nobody else can do it. It's far too difficult to go from fast to slow to stop to full speed in as little time as Bell manages to do it.
The line's blocking combined with Bell's backfield dancing led to his averaging 1.8 yards before contact this season, per Pro Football Focus, the 10th-highest average among 41 running backs with at least 100 carries. His power, speed and explosiveness all contributed to his average of 3 yards after contact, which ranked seventh among the same group of players. The only other players with a comparable amount of carries that ranked in the top 10 in both categories were Ezekiel Elliott, Jordan Howard and Mark Ingram.
Defenders are barely able to get their hands on Bell before he gains a couple yards, and even once they do, it's incredibly difficult to bring him down before he gains even more.
It would be one thing to deal with a player like this if he was only a runner, but Bell is arguably the best pass-catching back in the league as well. He averaged 6.3 receptions in 2016, giving him the second-highest single-season average for a running back (Matt Forte, 6.4 in 2014). The Steelers throw him the ball out of the backfield on screens, swings, flats, circle routes and more. He also lined up as a true receiver on 15.3 percent of his snaps this season, per Pro Football Focus. The Steelers throw it to him when he's lined out wide on smoke screens, slants, fade routes -- he works the entire route tree like he's one of their regular receivers; at 6-feet-2 and 230 pounds, he's basically the size of a guy like Dez Bryant anyway.
You can't cover him with a linebacker or a safety because most of them are no match for his speed. Corners stand a better chance in coverage, but if you're using your best on Antonio Brown, it's likely that you're leaving Bell with a mismatch. Slide the best cover corner onto Bell and you risk letting the best receiver in football go to work on an inferior player. It's a catch-22.
Do the Patriots have a chance?
All of this, of course, leads to the operative question: How the heck do you try to stop this guy? The only team to do it this season was the Ravens -- Bell's 70 total yards against Baltimore in Week 9 represented his lowest total of the season, as well as the only time he finished under 100.
Some of that had to do with a relative lack of usage. Bell's 20 touches in that game were his second-lowest of the season. (The only game he touched the ball fewer times was against the Miami Dolphins in Week 7; he had at least 23 in every other game.) Some of it was that the Ravens simply had one of the NFL's strongest run defenses. They were fifth in the NFL in rushing defense DVOA this season, per Football Outsiders, and fifth in yards per carry allowed as well.
The Ravens shot the very small gaps in Pittsburgh's offensive line and held Bell to 1 yard per carry before contact, tackling him at or behind the line of scrimmage on three of his 14 carries (a rate that's equal to Baltimore's 21 percent stuff rate on the season) while allowing him to gain more than 3 yards on only one. Their linebackers, C.J. Mosley and Zachary Orr in particular, were all over the field all game. That duo combined for 16 tackles and eight run stops. Bell found a degree of success catching the ball out of the backfield (he caught three of four targets for 24 yards against Orr), but the Baltimore corners were able to hold him in check when he lined up out wide.
How much of this can the Pats replicate? Well, that all depends on what level of contribution they get from their defensive front. Defensive tackles Alan Branch and Malcom Brown need to generate push up the middle. Defensive ends Chris Long, Trey Flowers, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard need to crash down and tackle the dive while still maintaining the edge in order to prevent Bell from bouncing his runs to the outside. Linebackers Donta' Hightower, Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy might have the biggest responsibility, as they have to come up and play the run while making sure not to get beat by screens or play-action passes. Mosley and Orr struck that balance perfectly in Week 9, but no other group of linebackers was able to find it all season.
The Pats might be better equipped to deal with Bell if and when he splits out wide. They have players like Devin McCourty and Eric Rowe that have experience as both corners and safeties. Because Malcolm Butler is likely to shadow Antonio Brown and because the Steelers' No. 2 and 3 wideouts are of such inferior quality to Brown, the Pats could even swing Logan Ryan (who has been incredible of late) onto Bell when he splits out. None of them are likely to win every time when lined up across from Bell, but the ability to throw several different looks at him should help.
In the end, it might not come down to the ability to stop Bell so much as the ability to contain him. If they can keep Bell from tearing their defense apart both on the ground and through the air, they might be able to lean on their offense to win a shootout.