Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell sets return date on Twitter: '9-1-17'
If Le'Veon Bell's Twitter feed is to be believed, his return to the Steelers practice field will come — fittingly — on Labor Day.
Bell appeared to finally tip his hand about his much-anticipated reunion with teammates late Monday night when he posted "9-1-17" with a winking emoji in response to a fan's question about his return.
A Sept. 1 comeback for Bell would be one day after the Steelers' final preseason game and three days before they would begin practicing (on Labor Day) for the Sept. 10 season opener in Cleveland.
In that case, Bell would have four practices — just one padded — to get ready for the season. Is that enough for a player who hasn't taken a snap since the first half of the AFC championship game, skipping 12 organized team activity sessions, three minicamp practices and all of training camp?
"Coming off an injury, it's going to be about how he feels," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said, referring to Bell's offseason groin surgery.
Bell has spent the past month working out with a trainer in Miami, posting daily Snapchat videos to update his progress.
"He's going to come back here in great shape. He's always in great shape," Roethlisberger said. "But there's in shape, and there's football shape.
"There's running around in shorts and a T-shirt — or, for him, probably no shirt — and putting pads on and getting hit. He's going to have to judge how easy it is to come back and be ready to go."
9-1-17 https://t.co/8Sj7MvzD79— Le'Veon Bell (@L_Bell26) August 23, 2017
All-Pro guard David DeCastro doesn't think the lack of padded practices will affect Bell's preparation for the season. Bell's 2016 preseason was limited to the third game. He had eight touches (three rushes, five receptions) in the first half against the New Orleans Saints.
"He's not getting hit in pads anyway," DeCastro said. "Us on the offensive and defensive lines need a week or two to get back in football shape. Running back is a little different story. He's going to get in shape as the season goes on."
The Steelers got a little glimpse last season of how well Bell responds to inactivity when he rushed for 144 yards on 18 carries against the Kansas City Chiefs after sitting out the first three games while serving a drug suspension. He went on to rush for 1,268 yards and catch 75 passes for 616 additional yards.
The difference is, the Steelers had Bell in training camp last season. This year, he has stayed away from the team while debating when to sign his $12.12 million franchise-tag tender.
"Luckily, we've had him here the past couple of years, so that's nice," DeCastro said. "You'd like to have some time, a week or two. Hopefully, we get him back, get in stride and, most importantly, hit that stride as the season goes on."
Coach Mike Tomlin repeatedly deflected questions Wednesday about Bell's return, his workload against the Browns or whether the running back will face any "consequences," as Tomlin stated on the day players reported to training camp.
"When he gets here, then we'll look at the circumstances and how we move forward," Tomlin said. "But right now it would be disrespectful to the men that are here working to waste one iota of my time worrying about those that aren't."
While Tomlin has maintained contact with Bell, the franchise quarterback hasn't. Roethlisberger told the Tribune-Review on July 28 that two text messages he sent to Bell went unreturned. Roethlisberger told reporters Wednesday he still hasn't heard back from Bell.
"There's no hard feelings on my side," Roethlisberger said. "I'd love to hear back from him — a text to say, 'Hey, how are you doing?' — but it is what it is."
When Bell arrives, he will encounter an expanded playbook as a result of some "bigger" changes that were made in the offseason.
"That's on him, how much studying he wants to do," Roethlisberger said. "We'll do everything we can to get him up to speed, and the rest is up to him.
"We have a couple bigger (wrinkles) this year than usual. Every year you put new things in and change things. It's just coincidentally this year we have more than usual."
The Steelers drafted former Pitt running back James Conner in the third round and added veteran Knile Davis in free agency to compete with Fitzgerald Toussaint as Bell's backup. Conner rushed for 98 yards in the Steelers' preseason win Sunday against Atlanta.
"It's a violent sport, and the running back position takes a beating," Roethlisberger said. "We have to hope other guys are ready to go if he does need spelled. I don't know. I'm not him. I don't know if he'll be ready to play every single play like he does. We have other guys ready to give him breaks."
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.