Le’Veon Bell finished 2017 with 1,291 rushing yards, nine rushing TDs as well as his third Pro-Bowl selection and second All-Pro team selection. It is safe to say that he was a big part of the Steelers’ offense. There is now a hole in that Steelers’ offense because Le’Veon Bell is holding out. He is upset that the Steelers franchise tagged him for a second straight year, and he is refusing to play under that franchise tag. Bell wants a long-term deal and he wants to be paid like a top-tier QB. The Steelers have refused to increase their offer, so now we are in a standoff.
The Steelers are ready to go without Le’Veon Bell as they named James Conner the starting running back for week 1. The Steelers tied the Browns 21-21 in their week 1 match-up without Bell in the backfield. James Conner came in and ran for 135 yards on 31 carries with 2 TDs. Conner also had 5 receptions for 57 yards. Clearly production from the running back position was not an issue for the Steelers without Bell.
Conner did make a mistake that Le’Veon Bell might not have made, though. With a little under eight minutes left and the Steelers up 21-7, Conner was stripped on his own 18-yard line and the Browns returned the fumble to the Steelers’ 1-yard line. This fumble by Conner led to a 1-yard touchdown run by Carlos Hyde to make the game 21-14. Bell has 8 career fumbles in 5 NFL seasons and may not have fumbled in that situation. That was a put-away drive for the Steelers and that fumble proved costly. The Steelers most likely would have held on to the lead if Conner did not fumble. The Steelers had a 98.5%-win probability before Conner fumbled on the opening play of their drive.
So far, Bell’s holdout has had a negative effect on the team. Bell is a clutch and experienced player and he knows to cover the ball up in the 4th quarter. It is very unlikely that Bell would have fumbled in that spot. The Steelers just had to drive down the field and kill some clock and they would have walked out of week 1 with a win instead of a tie. Teammates, specifically Bell’s offensive line, have voiced their displeasure with Bell’s holdout. Offensive guard Ramon Foster had this to say on Bell’s holdout in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “He’s making seven times what I made, twice as much as Al [Villanueva] is making, and we’re the guys who do it for him”. Center Maurkice Pouncey said this on how the team will operate in Bell’s absence, “It’s totally fine with us. As a team, we’re totally fine. It takes 11 guys, not one”.
Bell’s teammates seem to view Bell’s holdout as a selfish move. They do not see Bell as a team player. These offensive linemen are working in the trenches to provide Bell with running room and they are not holding out for bigger contracts. They believe that the franchise tag is more than enough compensation for what Bell brings to the table. The Steelers want to win, and they know their best chance to win is with Bell on the field. They are unhappy that Bell would try to get paid instead of contribute to the team. When James Conner scored his first career rushing TD, it was notable to see that Conner had an exuberant celebration with the offensive line. The offensive line seemed to be a little too happy for a week 1 touchdown. This celebration looked to be a direct shot at Le’Veon Bell. They showed that they are fully embracing James Conner as the starting running back and are ready to move on from Bell.
Bell’s absence will continue to have a negative effect on the team if he holds out even longer. The Steelers feel betrayed by Bell. They thought Bell would show up for week 1, but he stayed at home instead. They seem to be bringing these feelings of betrayal to the field with them. Actively planning out a celebration with James Conner seems to show that they are thinking about Bell’s absence even when the game is going on. Their minds might be clouded and may be more focused on Bell than the game at hand. It is certainly going to be difficult if Bell decides to join the team. There will most likely not be a welcome back party for Bell, and Bell might have to play back-up to James Conner if Conner continues to rush for 130 yards. Bell’s absence is certainly a distraction to the team. The Steelers would love to prepare for their week 2 match-up against the Chiefs, but they will be asked endless questions about Bell and whether he will show up for the Kansas City game instead. The Steelers cannot prepare for the Chiefs if they do not know if Bell will commit to play in week 2. Le’Veon Bell sitting out week 1 might cause irreparable damage between him and his teammates. Bell may show up to play in week 2, but his teammates will not forget that he abandoned them in week 1.