Injured Steelers RB Bell to miss 3rd preseason game
The Steelers' running game, at least for now, is back in the hands of the running backs they spent an offseason trying to replace.
With starter-to-be Le'Veon Bell shelved indefinitely with a foot injury that could sideline him for at least a month into the season, the Steelers on Wednesday found themselves preparing for the season in the same unwanted situation they were in when their 2012 season ended.
Namely, with Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer as their lead running backs — and the Steelers wanting more out of a position that gave them far less production than normal last season, the second-worst for their running game during a 16-game season.
Coach Mike Tomlin declined to confirm whether Bell has a Lisfranc injury in his right foot, one that could sideline him for six weeks or more. Tight end Matt Spaeth is out with the same injury.
Bell remained optimistic.
“I'll be back quicker than (people know) it,” Bell wrote on his Twitter account.
Bell underwent an MRI exam Tuesday, then received a second opinion Wednesday — one that Tomlin said didn't require him to leave the Pittsburgh area. If Bell needs surgery, as Spaeth did, he could be out even longer.
“It doesn't matter who's back there with our talent,” said Dwyer, whose 623 yards rushing last season represented one of the lowest totals by a Steelers' single-season leader.
But it did matter to the Steelers, who entered the offseason intending to find a workhorse back who could return their running game to the level they expect — and one who would allow offensive coordinator Todd Haley to open up the playbook.
Ben Roethlisberger was at his most efficient last season when the running game was productive, throwing for seven touchdowns and two interceptions while completing nearly 69 percent of his passes during a four-game midseason winning streak. Haley was counting on a reliable running game giving Roethlisberger time and room to throw.
The Steelers felt they had such a runner in Bell, one with size, durability and sufficient speed who was being groomed to be the starter from Week 1. Privately, they anticipated he might produce the most yardage of any rookie back since Franco Harris ran for 1,055 yards during his immaculate 1972 season.
But Bell bruised his left knee before the preseason opener, injured it again last week, then managed only four carries Monday night against the Redskins before injuring his mid-foot.
Just as they did throughout last season, the Steelers are back to trying to find a lead back among Dwyer, Redman and Baron Batch, none of whom impressed them previously as being capable of filling the job long-term.
LaRod Stephens-Howling also is an option, but the Steelers prefer to use the 5-foot-7 former Pitt running back as a third down and situational back.
“I come in each day, each week, to prepare as if I'm the starter,” said Redman, who is listed ahead of Dwyer on the depth chart. “Now Le'Veon's down, and we're a little banged up, and I'm looking to step up and lead this room.”
Redman carried only twice in the preseason opener against the Giants and was held out of the Redskins game with a pinched nerve in his shoulder. But with the starters likely to play at least a half against the Chiefs on Saturday, the competition between Redman and Dwyer will play out in game action.
Redman moved ahead of Dwyer on the depth chart, in part, because Dwyer reported for spring practices weighing an estimated 260 pounds. He is down about 25 pounds after Tomlin expressed considerable disappointment with his conditioning.
Dwyer is the team's leading rusher with 83 yards on 20 carries in two preseason games, including 68 yards against the Redskins.
“Ultimately, everybody just wants to have one guy,” Dwyer said. “I hope it's going to be me at the end of the day. It's going to be their decision.”
Redman, a strong runner with the ability to break tackles, spent his offseason becoming lighter and quicker.
“I worked on that the whole offseason, and I think it paid off,” Redman said. “The plan is to run through (would-be tacklers), then run by them.”
No matter where the Steelers turn in this preseason, they seem to run into injuries. Already, receiver Plaxico Burress (shoulder) is out for the season, and Spaeth, who was to be the injury replacement for Heath Miller as he heals from a major knee injury, is out until about midseason.
Dr. David Geier, a South Carolina-based orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports injuries, said Bell — if he has a Lisfranc injury — could not return until fully healed.
“Any displacement of that part of the mid-foot, even mild, is thought to lead to long-term degeneration of the foot,” said Geier, who is not involved in Bell's treatment. “There is a tremendous amount of stress that is placed on that area with planting and cutting, so these activities are very hard until the Lisfranc ligament and the mid-foot fully heal. We have gotten much more aggressive fixing these injuries surgically, even for minimally displaced injuries, in recent years.”
The Steelers' plan following their 8-8 season of 2012 was to go young, not necessarily to rebuild but to quickly plug in new, young starters to energize what was becoming an aging team. They're doing that with rookies Jarvis Jones, Markus Wheaton and Shamarko Thomas. But, for now, their backfield overhaul must wait.
The question is for how long.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.
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