Kevin Gorman: It’s a ‘Hard Knocks’ life for Steelers with Le’Veon Bell a no-show

October 2, 2018

Steelers offensive guard lead blocks for James Conner against the Titans Saturday Aug. 25, 2018 at Heinz Field.

Five days before the Pittsburgh Steelers play their season opener, Mike Tomlin said he hadn’t thought about Le’Veon Bell, doesn’t watch “Hard Knocks” but feels better about James Conner after a lap around the track.

Never mind that the Steelers could start their season at the Cleveland Browns, the subject of HBO’s training-camp special, without the All-Pro running back who was a no-show to practice on Labor Day.

When it came to evading questions surrounding his own reality-show Steelers, Tomlin was in midseason form. Almost as evasive, you could say, as Bell has been in signing his $14.54-million franchise tag tender.

But if you’ve got red paint, you paint your barn red.

That’s a coaching analogy Tomlin shared Tuesday when talking about Todd Haley, the former Steelers offensive coordinator who called Bell’s number 406 times last season but is now calling plays for the Browns.

Tomlin seemed more pleased with the perceived advantage that the NFL has no book on his new offensive coordinator, Randy Fichtner, and less concerned that Haley could share the secrets of the Steelers’ playbook with a Browns coaching staff coming off an 0-16 season.

“You could play that ‘he knows that I know that he knows that I know’ game,” Tomlin said of Haley. “Hopefully, he plays it all week. I’m going to just get ready to play a football game.”

The Steelers appear to be preparing to play without Bell, who hasn’t suited up since an AFC Divisional playoff loss to Jacksonville in January. Bell had 16 carries for 67 yards rushing and nine catches for 88 yards receiving against the Jaguars, becoming the first player in franchise playoff history to score touchdowns by rushing and receiving in the same game. But Bell also came up short on fourth-and-1 toss sweep in the first quarter, a call that had fans howling for Haley’s head.

Tomlin said he hasn’t communicated with Bell this week and is taking a wait-and-see approach to “start quantifying all Le’Veon Bell-related things” until he shows up and signs.

There’s no guarantee that will happen Thursday, not after the L.A. Rams signed Todd Gurley to a four-year, $57.5-million deal that includes a $21 million signing bonus and $45 million guaranteed. If Bell wants to play hardball with the Steelers, he could miss as much as half of the season before he signs.

No wonder the Steelers have put up a united front in standing behind James Conner, the second-year running back from Pitt who rushed for 144 yards on 32 carries in 14 games last season. A year later - or a lap around the track, as Tomlin called it - the Steelers suddenly are singing a different tune about their starting running back.

“Right now, we’re singularly focused on guys that are here and working and have been here and working,” Tomlin said. “We’re building a plan around variables that we know. That’s the appropriate thing.”

Conner earned the respect of and endorsements from his coaches and teammates by showing up in the best shape of his life in the offseason, running with reckless abandon in the preseason and showing improved pass-blocking and pass-catching ability out of the backfield.

Conner just doesn’t do it as well as Bell.

Where Bell has rushed for 1,200 or more yards in three of the past four seasons, Conner has yet to have his first 100-yard game. Where Bell has 35 career rushing touchdowns, including a career-high nine last season, Conner has yet to score his first. Where Bell has 312 receptions for 2,660 yards in five seasons, Conner has yet to record his first NFL catch.

The Steelers beat the Browns in the opener last year despite only a week of practice by Bell, who ran for 32 yards on 10 carries and had three catches for 15 yards. He finished with 1,291 rushing and 655 receiving.

Unlike Tomlin, Bell wasn’t in midseason form until midseason. But Bell was still one of the best running backs in the league, one whose absence leaves the Steelers with a storyline “Hard Knocks” would love.

The Steelers might be circling their wagons around Conner but they know they are better with Bell, no matter how you paint it.

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