Steelers offensive linemen looking to build on strong 2013 finish
Despite being dressed in street clothes Monday on the first day of contact drills at Steelers training camp, Le'Veon Bell was fully engaged during the fiery, sometimes-combative practice.
The second-year running back kept an eye on an offensive line that enters this season full of optimism. He paced up and down Chuck Noll Field, imploring tackles Marcus Gilbert, Kelvin Beachum and Mike Adams to deliver a decisive block.
“I was looking forward to hitting, but you have to prepare for the season,” said Bell, who left Sunday's practice with a hamstring injury.
For the most part, the offensive line drew even with a defensive front motivated to prove that last year's uneven performance was a fluke.
The offensive line, buoyed by the return of center Maurkice Pouncey, is out to prove that the final six games of last season are reflective of how the ground game can function. Bell amassed 485 of his 860 rushing yards during a stretch in which the Steelers went 4-2.
“When a player like Pouncey goes down, it's not going to be the same,” said Adams, who started five games at left tackle and five as an extra blocking tight end. “I'm excited about the things we're doing now. (Offensive line) coach (Mike) Munchak talks about pounding the ball when we want to, which allows (quarterback) Ben (Roethlisberger) to take his shots.”
Bell, who rushed for a career-high 124 yards on a snow-covered Lambeau Field in a 38-31 victory over Green Bay in December, is confident the running game can pick up where it left off. He's confident, too, that a maturing offensive front has developed the chemistry that will make him among the NFL's most-feared runners.
“I think around Week 13, there was more chemistry,” said Bell, who also caught 45 passes last season. “We got comfortable because there weren't as many injuries.
“I'm coming into camp with the same guys I finished last season with. So we're starting where we left off.”
The Steelers had six offensive linemen start at least 10 games in 2013, including Gilbert starting all 16 games at right tackle and guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro starting 15.
A once-maligned front began developing chemistry and continuity when Bell began his rookie season in London: a 57-yard, two-touchdown debut against Minnesota in Week 4.
Bell admits he didn't hit his stride until eight weeks later in Cleveland, where he rushed for 80 yards. He used his speed to turn the corner, but he was most effective between the tackles.
“I definitely thought we were doing a better job opening the middle of the field,” Adams said. “We were lighting up the scoreboard, but we've moved on from last year.
“We have guys who played a lot last year, so we're excited about the snaps we've taken together. We are very comfortable with one another.”
As the Steelers prepare for their preseason opener at the New York Giants on Aug. 9, Bell and the offensive line are confident they can pound the ball inside to take pressure off the passing game.
“It doesn't matter to me where I run,” Bell said. “You need to run downhill inside and have the speed to get outside. You need to make it hard on the defense. I like having the ball in my hands to make plays.”
Munchak said the ground game will complement Bell's strength, but he's challenging Bell and his line to do more.
“You always tailor things to what your guys do best,” Munchak said. “Every running back has to be able to do more than just one thing, so you are going to lean on what he is good at and what we are good at blocking.”
Beachum said the offense became less predictable as Bell gathered momentum late in the season, especially with a strong inside ground game.
“Our inside zone and gap runs are what we were able to hit inside the tackles,” said Beachum, who started 11 games at left tackle last season. “It's one of our bread-and-butter plays. We really got it rolling because we had some continuity at the end of the year, and having Pouncey back will only reinforce what we've been doing.”
The ground game strategy was altered when Pouncey was lost for the season. The outside-zone blocking scheme in which the Steelers worked feverishly during last year's training camp was scaled back significantly.
“Pounce was taking all the reps, so once he went down, you couldn't run the outside zone as effective as we wanted to run it,” Bell said. “With Pounce coming back, it's going to be a big thing for us.”
For Bell, the key to a successful ground game is patience. At times during his rookie season, he got ahead of his blockers. Sometimes he got ahead of himself.
“I guess certain times and situations you have to be patient,” he said. “If it's third-and-1, you have to go get it. If it's a first-and-10 run, you can take your time and let the play develop.
“A lot of runners run up a lineman's back, and linemen don't say anything about it, but they don't like anyone running into their backs. I try to give them space at the line of scrimmage.”
The offensive line, in turn, is determined to carve out enough space for Bell again to ignite a seemingly resurgent ground game.
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.