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Pittsburgh Steelers

WR depth factors into Le’Veon Bell’s reduced playing time

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) runs with the ball during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
AP Photo/Ron Schwane

PITTSBURGH — Le’Veon Bell certainly doesn’t need to take the side job at Dairy Queen he desires.

Even after failing to reach agreement on a long-term contract over the summer, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ two-time Pro Bowl running back has a $12.12 million salary this season. However, Bell might have some extra energy to take a few shifts putting the iconic curly Q on top of ice cream cones.

Bell won’t always be a three-down back this year as he has been in his previous four seasons. He was used on just 43 of the Steelers’ 60 snaps last Sunday in their season-opening 21-18 victory over the Browns in Cleveland.

Furthermore, Bell had just 13 touches. He rushed for 32 yards on 10 carries and caught three passes for 15 yards.

A few factors contributed to the reduced playing time, including missing the entire preseason because of a contract holdout. The Steelers also faced many long-yardage situations during a game in which they were penalized 13 times for 144 yards.

“When you get penalties, you get backed up you’re not going to run the ball on second-and-20,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “You have to find ways to get some chunks back. The game dictated the way the game went and their defense dictated things. It wasn’t, ‘Let’s shut Le’Veon out and let’s see this that and the other.’ It was how the game unfolded.”

Yet the Steelers also plan to advantage of their depth at wide receiver this season, including Sunday when they host the Minnesota Vikings (1-0) at Heinz Field. Against the Browns, they ran nine plays with four wide receivers and no running backs. Second-round draft pick JuJu Smith-Schuster joined starters Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Eli Rogers on the field.

“We’ve got a lot of guys we can get on the field,” Roethlisberger said. “We want to be able to get JuJu on the field. That’s what that does. It creates an opportunity to get him on the field to create even more of a mismatch problem. I think you’ll see more of it because it was very good to us.”

Bell said he understands the situation and will adapt accordingly.

“However, they plan to use me, I will be available,” Bell said. “I will make sure I put everything out there on the line and do the best I can. I am just going to go out there and run the plays called to the best of my ability and make plays when the opportunity presents itself. I have to get better at that. Hopefully this week I can do that.”

Roethlisberger and Brown combined for almost all the Steelers’ offense last week when the Browns limited them to 290 yards. Roethlisberger completed 24 of 36 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns with one interception while Brown had 11 receptions for 182 yards.

Yet, Viking coach Mike Zimmer knows his defense still needs to be aware of Bell.

“Cleveland did a good job as far as attacking them, a lot of different looks,” Zimmer said. “He is probably trying to get his timing down a little bit.”

Timing is indeed a concern for Bell. He says the more carries he gets, the better rhythm he establishes.

“The more I am involved, the better I get throughout the course of the game,” Bell said. “I start figuring out players and how they are playing, the game speed and that. Plus, I feel like I am in better shape, so I think over the course of the game, in the third quarter people feel like they are in the third quarter and I feel like I am just getting started. That is what I pride myself off of and I am going to continue to do that.”

The quandary: How do the Steelers hand the ball to Bell more while trying to balance that with their desire to use four-receiver sets?

A clearer answer could emerge Sunday.

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