While the NFL and NFLPA continue to haggle over Tom Brady's four-game suspension, the Pittsburgh Steelers recently got a resolution on the suspension appeal of star tailback Le'Veon Bell. How will that affect his chances to lead the NFL in rushing?
Bell Back In Week 3
Back in late July, Bell's suspension was reduced from three games to two. He was knocked for an arrest for marijuana possession and DUI in August 2014. Former teammate LeGarrette Blount, who was the passenger in Bell's car, received a one-game suspension. Blount is now with the New England Patriots. So we know that Bell will still miss that season opener in New England -- still not clear if Brady will be able to play that game, although I doubt his suspension is totally wiped out; Blount will miss it -- as well as Week 2, Pittsburgh's home opener against San Francisco. Bell's first game will be Week 3 at St. Louis, a tremendous defensive team with maybe the best defensive line in the NFL. But the Rams, who added Detroit Lions free agent Nick Fairley to that line, were only 14th against the run in 2014, however.
Presumably, former Carolina Panther DeAngelo Williams will start the first two games with Bell out. Williams used to be a pretty good player but he's now 31 and was limited to six games last year due to injury and averaged only 3.5 yards per carry. How important is Bell to the Steelers? I think that showed in last season's home playoff game against Baltimore, which he missed due to an injury suffered in Week 17. The Steelers were upset 30-17, with Josh Harris the team's leading rusher in the game with nine carries for 25 yards. He's still around and could get some carries in the opener as could Dri Archer, although he's more of a pass-catcher out of the backfield. The Pittsburgh Steelers are 0-4 in the last two seasons without Bell, averaging under 15 points per game. Since drafting him in 2013 out of Michigan State, they are 19-10 when he plays and average 26.7 points per game.
Bell can practice with the Steelers and play in preseason games. The NFL's preseason opens Sunday night in Canton, Ohio, with the annual Hall of Fame Game. Former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis is one member of the Class of 2015. Pittsburgh is a 3.5-point dog against Minnesota.
Top Steeler In 2014 Was...
The Steelers had the greatest offensive season in franchise history last year. They were No. 2 behind New Orleans in total yards (411.1 per game) and seventh in points (27.3 per game). Ben Roethlisberger tied for the NFL lead in passing yards and Antonio Brown led the league in catches and receiving yards.
But the player named the team's Most Valuable Player was Bell. He was the first running back since 2006 (Willie Parker) to be named team MVP. Bell was selected to the Pro Bowl after rushing for 1,361 yards and eight touchdowns. He also had 83 receptions for 854 yards and three touchdowns. Bell became one of four players in NFL history to record at least 1,300 rushing yards and 750 receiving yards in the same season, joining Marshall Faulk, Steven Jackson and Brian Westbrook. Bell was second in the NFL with 2,215 yards from scrimmage. According to Football Outsiders, Bell ranked fifth in efficiency as a runner and first among all running backs as a pass-catcher. Those 83 catches were the league's second-most from the running back position behind Chicago's behind Matt Forte.
But we are here to talk about the rushing title. Bell is +1350 to win it at 5Dimes, with his NFL odds dropping a bit after the suspension was reduced. He is also +2500 to score the most touchdowns in 2015. Here is Pittsburgh's schedule after the Rams game and the teams' rankings against the run last year: vs. Baltimore (No. 4), at San Diego (No. 26), vs. Arizona (No. 13), at Kansas City (No. 28), vs. Cincinnati (No. 20), vs. Oakland (No. 22), vs. Cleveland (No. 32), at Seattle (No. 3), vs. Indianapolis (No. 18), at Cincinnati (No. 20), vs. Denver (No. 2), at Baltimore (No. 4), at Cleveland (No. 32).
The last seven rushing champions all had at least 1,606 yards. The last to win the title with less than 1,500 was San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson with 1,474 in 2007. He's the only guy with less than 1,500 this century to win it.
NFL Free Pick: For Bell to even reach 1,500 in 14 games, he would have to average about 107 yards per game. That's just not going to happen. Don't bet on him to win the rushing title.