Four-receiver sets — minus Le'Veon Bell — could be staple for Steelers
One offensive look the Steelers flashed throughout the season opener in Cleveland featured four wide receivers, a tight end and nobody other than quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the backfield.
That Le'Veon Bell was not included was an unexpected surprise for the Pro Bowl running back, who led the NFL in yards from scrimmage average last season before sitting out all of the offseason and training camp.
Bell said it was the first time in his four-plus seasons he recalled coming out of the game and not lining up in the slot in such situations.
Bell also wasn't sure if it would be a recurring theme Sunday when the Steelers play the Minnesota Vikings at Heinz Field.
“I'm just going to play in the game scheme,” Bell said Wednesday. “Whatever the plan is, I'll go out and execute to the best of my ability. When the opportunities present themselves, I'm going to go out there and make plays.”
Bell was on the field for 72 percent of the offensive snaps (43 of 60) in the 21-18 victory against Cleveland. That the Steelers limited his snaps could be attributed to Bell's absence from the team. Rookie James Conner subbed in for a few series.
“I definitely want to be out there every play,” Bell said.
Bell rarely left the field last season during the six games he played in the seven-game winning streak that ended the regular season. He played 97 percent of the offensive snaps (392 of 404) in that stretch and played every snap but one in the AFC North wins against Cincinnati and Baltimore that clinched the division title.
But did Bell play too much? He injured a groin muscle in the first half of the AFC championship game and underwent surgery in the offseason. That is one reason Conner replaced Bell periodically against the Browns but doesn't explain Bell's absence from the four-wide package.
Slot receiver Eli Rogers and rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster lined up with starters Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant when the Steelers went to the empty backfield.
“We've got a lot of guys we're able to get on the field,” Roethlisberger said. “We want to be able to get JuJu on the field, and that's what that does. It's an opportunity to get him on the field and create even more of a mismatch problem.
“I think you'll see more of it because it was very good to us.”
Although the offense produced just two touchdowns against the Browns, the four-receiver set clicked in the final minute of the first half when Roethlisberger directed a seven-play, 91-yard drive. It culminated with tight end Jesse James catching a 4-yard touchdown pass to give the Steelers a 14-7 lead.
The Browns played their safeties far off the line of scrimmage in an attempt to keep Roethlisberger from throwing deep.
“We want to take our shots, but we also know we can dink and dunk down the field, and that's kind of what we did when we had the four receivers and one tight end on the field at the end of the half,” Roethlisberger said. “We just took what they gave us underneath. That produces opportunities to move the ball the same way — just not in big chunks.”
Bell had only four carries in the half and 10 for the game. Counting his three receptions, Bell's 13 touches were low by his standards.
“The more I'm involved, the better I get throughout the course of a game,” Bell said. “I start figuring out players and the way they are playing, the game speed. I tend to feel I'm in better shape (than others). When it's the third quarter and people feel like they are in the third quarter, I'm just getting started.
“That's what I pride myself on, and that's what I'm going to continue to do.”
Bell would prefer to stay in the game the next time the Steelers go to an empty backfield, although he's not going to create a fuss with coaches.
“However they plan to use me, I'll be available,” Bell said. “I'll make sure I put everything on the line when I'm out there.”