The Pittsburgh Steelers stressed all summer the need to avoid the kind of off-the-field distractions they couldn’t seem to shake in 2017.
So much for that.
While the two-time defending AFC North champions hit the practice field on Monday to prepare for their Week 1 opener in Cleveland, All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell was nowhere to be found. Bell still hasn’t signed his one-year franchise tender or given any indication on when he might show up, leaving his teammates to answer for him.
“I’m not annoyed by [being asked about] it,” guard Ramon Foster said, tongue firmly in cheek. “Who are you talking about? I didn’t even notice.”
Centre Maurkice Pouncey called Bell’s absence “fine” and insisted it won’t be an issue going forward.
“The team is so locked in and focused on what we’ve got to do at hand this weekend that whenever he comes, we’ll welcome him with open arms,” Pouncey said. “Hopefully he’s in shape and ready to run the football.”
A year ago Bell skipped training camp, showed up on Labour Day and was ready to play in the opener, though he and the entire offence looked sluggish in narrow 21-18 victory over the Browns. Bell finished with 32 yards on 10 carries in Cleveland and didn’t really get rolling until October.
Tops in touches
“I think the whole offence started out kind of slow last year,” Pouncey said. “To point out one thing at one person because he wasn’t here [for camp] is totally wrong.”
Bell recovered in time to lead the NFL with 406 touches and likely would have won the league rushing title if he wasn’t held out of a meaningless finale with Pittsburgh’s playoff position already secure.
The Steelers placed the franchise tag on him for a second straight spring hoping a long-term deal could be worked out. When the two sides failed to reach an agreement by the July 17th deadline, Bell offered an apology while promising that “2018 will be my best season to date.”
At the moment, it’s a season that currently lacks a starting point.
The players are off Tuesday, meaning Bell would have just three days of practice to get ready for the Browns if he signed his $14.5 million US tender before the team took the field on Wednesday. That’s not a lot of time regardless of Bell’s pedigree.
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said the team was “disappointed” in Bell’s late arrival, but will focus on preparing for Cleveland with the 53 men currently on the roster.
‘We’ll be fine in the run game’
If Bell is not available, the Steelers will turn to second-year running back James Conner. The former Pitt star ran for 100 yards during limited action in the preseason and has won raves from his teammates for his improvement as both a blocker and a receiver.
“I feel like James has been in a great spot this entire camp,” Foster said. “He’s the one that’s taken all the reps. And we’ve got [Stevan] Ridley who is an experienced hard downfield runner too. We’ll be fine in the run game and focus on those guys over there.”
While Bell is missing, Josh Dobbs is still around. The second-year quarterback capped a stellar training camp by edging veteran Landry Jones for the right to be Ben Roethlisberger’s backup.
Dobbs, who threw for a touchdown and ran for another in the exhibition finale against Carolina, said he wasn’t sure he made the team until offensive co-ordinator Randy Fichtner called him just minutes before rosters were trimmed from 90 to 53.
“I thought I played well when my opportunities came,” Dobbs said. “I didn’t know how it was going to shake out but I felt we prepared well and played well. We’ve just got to continue to improve moving forward.”
Rookie Mason Rudolph will be the third-stringer for now behind Dobbs and the 36-year-old Roethlisberger, who has been remarkably durable in recent seasons. Roethlisberger has missed just five games because of injury since the start of 2013.