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Bye week rejuvenates Steelers' Le'Veon Bell after busy 1st half

Joe Rutter
| Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, 9:06 p.m.

Le'Veon Bell avoided contact during the Steelers' bye. He just couldn't avoid football.

Bell returned to his alma mater, Michigan State, to watch the Spartans upset Penn State on a last-second field goal.

“It got me going, watching football all weekend,” Bell said Wednesday. “I'm ready to get playing.”

And ready to absorb more hits.

Bell led all NFL players in the first half of the season with 229 touches. If he maintains that pace, he will have the second-most touches in any NFL season.

Tampa Bay's James Wilder holds the record with 492 touches in 1984, a remarkable figure considering he didn't have the benefit of a bye week. Bell's projection of 458 touches would nudge him past former Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson (457 in 2006) for the second spot.

Bell said the off week came at the appropriate time — the midpoint of the season with the Steelers riding a three-game winning streak and AFC-best 6-2 record.

“I got some nice rest, took care of my body,” he said. “I feel good. I'm ready to go.”

Only one NFL runner has surpassed 400 touches in a season since 2010. DeMarco Murray had 449 in 2014 with the Dallas Cowboys. Bell doesn't see why he can't maintain his pace, which easily would push him past Barry Foster's team record of 426 touches set in 1992.

“It's not like I'm injured or carrying any injuries,” he said. “I feel good. I can't complain where I'm at right now. Over the course of the year and as I continue to do what I've been doing, when we get to the playoffs, I should be good.”

Of course, that was the thinking last year when the Steelers rode Bell's legs to the AFC championship game. Then, he injured his groin and exited early in the second quarter of the 36-17 loss to the New England Patriots.

Bell averaged 28 touches in 2016, a slight dip from the 28.6 he is averaging this season. The groin injury was an aggravation from an unreported injury early in the season. Bell said it was during an October loss in Miami when “I felt something and everything kind of changed.”

Bell pressed on and was the workhorse down the stretch while helping the Steelers finish the season with a seven-game winning streak. He touched the ball a combined 63 times in playoff wins over Miami and Kansas City, setting franchise postseason rushing records each game.

“I've got a lot of doctors and therapists to help me maintain my body,” Bell said. “Over the course of the year (in 2016), I got hurt just because I didn't realize I was hurt until too late. I'm staying on top of things now before anything ever happens, before I have any strains or tears. I'm going to stay on top of my body to make sure everything is good.”

Since he was lost to a season-ending knee injury in the middle of the 2015 season, Bell has tried to minimize the contact he receives from defenders. That has limited the number of nasty hits he has taken in the past year and a half.

“He's grown as a player,” Steelers running backs coach James Saxon said.

“He's been in the league for a number of years now, so he understands the violence of the business. And he understands how to protect himself, and that's something he's good at. All of the good ones are.”

Not only has Bell worked to limit his injuries, he has conditioned his body for the grind of a 16-game schedule. That includes stretching, massages and ice baths. The way he practices also is a part of his stay-healthy plan.

“I treat it like a game,” he said. “I'm not getting tackled (in practice), but I go out there and do a lot of reps. In practice, I won't get 70 plays, but if I get 30 in practice, I'm going to run gassers on the side to get my wind going and make me feel like I'm in a game.

“The biggest thing is making me feel like I'm in the game, so when it translates into the game, it kind of seems easier. I want to practice harder than I actually play.”

Only once in Bell's first four seasons did he complete a 16-game schedule. That was in 2014 (he missed the playoffs with a knee injury), when he averaged 23.3 touches while rushing for 1,361 yards.

Bell is third among all rushers with 760 yards, trailing leader Kareem Hunt by 40 yards and Ezekiel Elliott by 23. Hunt, though, has played one more game than Bell and Elliott.

A rushing title, however, isn't on Bell's wish list.

“If it comes with it, it comes with it, but that's not necessarily what I'm worried about,” Bell said. “I want to do whatever it takes to win games. The stats will come with it.”

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

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