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After missing camp, Steelers' Le'Veon Bell yet to hit full speed

Joe Rutter
| Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017, 7:19 p.m.

With 107 yards from scrimmage Sunday afternoon in Chicago, Le'Veon Bell would rank third on the NFL all-time list for players after 50 career games.

Bell, who has 6,188 scrimmage yards, would surpass Eric Dickerson and trail only another Hall of Fame runner, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Edgerrin James.

It's heady company and an impressive feat for a running back, but if you ask a segment of Steelers fans, they would say Bell already should have passed Dickerson and perhaps even Tomlinson (he's 237 yards behind).

Bell has gotten off to a slower-than-usual start this season, and that hasn't gone unnoticed, especially after the Pro Bowl runner missed all offseason and training camp workouts.

After averaging 157 scrimmage yards in 12 games last season — the third-highest average in NFL history — Bell is averaging just 69 after wins against the Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings.

The next test comes Sunday on the road against the 0-2 Chicago Bears, who have the NFL's 25th-ranked defense and are No. 15 against the run.

“He's going to have to get up to speed,” guard Ramon Foster said. “That's going to take time, and the good thing is we have 16 weeks to do this. Hopefully, we are right-minded to handle this challenge this week.”

Not surprising for someone returning from such a lengthy stay away from the team, Bell had a career-low 47 scrimmage yards in the season opener. It was just the fourth time in his four-plus NFL seasons that Bell finished with fewer than 60 combined rushing and receiving yards.

Bell's carries increased from 10 to 27 last weekend against the Vikings, and he rushed for 87 yards. But he is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry — he averaged 4.9 last year — and has been a non-factor in the passing game.

Bell said Thursday that he is “happy” with his progress.

“As long as we're winning games,” he said. “I'm healthy. I feel good. I'm going to go out there and play.”

Big gains have been missing from Bell's repertoire through two games. He had a 15-yard run late in the 21-18 win over the Browns that helped the Steelers run out the clock, but against the Vikings, Bell didn't break any of his 27 attempts for longer than 11 yards.

“I thought the only thing that our run game lacked was the splash play — the 25-yard run or the 35-yard run,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “That turns an 80-something-yard day for him to a 120-something-yard day.”

Tomlin mentioned perimeter blocking as an area that needs improvement, and the Steelers tried to give Bell some help against the Vikings by opening with Chris Hubbard as an extra tight end and having fullback Roosevelt Nix on the field for 11 snaps.

“We've got a ways to go,” guard David DeCastro said. “It's one of those things that as long as we're winning and heading in the right direction, everyone is happy. We are excited to get back to work and get Le'Veon more touches. That's all you can really do: play it and continue to push each other to get better.”

Contributing to Bell's low scrimmage total is his lack of productivity in the passing game. He has caught seven passes for 19 yards, a 2.7 average. This after he averaged 8.2 yards on 75 receptions in 2016.

In the opener, Bell was pulled from the field when the Steelers went to four receivers and a tight end and caught just three of six targets. Against the Vikings, he caught all four targets but for just 4 yards.

“We're taking shots down the field, and we're not really putting him out at a wide receiver type of position yet,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “We're throwing screens to him. I don't even know if he's gotten involved in check-down passes yet because it hasn't presented itself.

“We'll continue to evolve and grow. I don't think there's any cause for concern or anything like that. It's just the way games are playing out right now.”

Bell had offseason surgery to repair a groin injury that forced him out of the AFC championship game loss at New England early in the second quarter. Bell said the groin is not an issue.

“I don't even think about it now,” he said. “I haven't thought about it since the season started.”

In 2016, when Bell was suspended for the first three games of the season, he had a memorable debut, rushing for 144 yards and totaling 178 scrimmage yards against the Kansas City Chiefs. But even though Bell had missed three weeks of practice last year, he had the benefit of training camp and offseason workouts to prepare for the season.

“This is Le'Veon's dress rehearsal,” Foster said. “This is Game 3 for him. We've got to make it go.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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