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Breakfast with Benz

Tim Benz: Steelers fans celebrating Le'Veon Bell's absence should regret it

| Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018, 6:27 a.m.
A fan holds a 'Le'Veon Who?' sign outside Heinz Field before the Steelers take on the Panthers on Nov. 8, 2018.
Tim Benz | Tribune-Review
A fan holds a 'Le'Veon Who?' sign outside Heinz Field before the Steelers take on the Panthers on Nov. 8, 2018.

I wonder where that guy is.

That Steelers fan who was proudly holding the “Le’Veon Who?” sign while standing behind the network TV pregame show before that Thursday night win over Carolina on Nov. 8.

He was beaming with a “cat that ate the canary” grin.

It wasn’t just that guy. There were thousands of other fans in the stands, around town or on social media expressing the same sentiment.

“Stay home, Le’V!”

“We don’t need you anyway, Bell!”

“We’re better off without him.”

“I’d drive that guy to the airport!”

Oh, my. The hubris!

I wonder if any of those folks would be willing to drive to the airport to pick up Bell now to get him in uniform before Sunday.

I bet the free Uber options for Bell would be pretty long.

Of course, that’s not possible any longer. The former All-Pro running back is ineligible to play for the rest of the season since he and the Steelers couldn’t come together on a franchise tag settlement before last month’s deadline.

Now the Steelers are down to their third-string running back. Bell’s replacement, James Conner, has an ankle sprain. He’s definitely out this week. Maybe longer.

Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round rookie, who was drafted with an eye towards being more of specialty/receiving option, may have to be the starter now.

I bet a lot of those “Le’Veon Who?” signs have been turned into kindling for the Yule log by now.

“We’ve got a great deal of confidence in Jaylen,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “Particularly of late. He’s a guy who has been on the rise in recent weeks.”

Samuels has been solid to this point in spot duty. Since that Carolina kickoff, Samuels has 14 touches and 64 yards. He scored on a 10-yard reception last week after Conner went out. Stevan Ridley probably will see extended snaps, as well.

Those sticking their tongues out at Bell wouldn’t have been so quick to do so if the prospect of facing New England and New Orleans without Conner was known in advance.

I’m not criticizing the organization. Bell made it impossible for the Steelers to sign him. Don’t buy for a second the “he would’ve reported if the Steelers had lifted the tag for next year” routine leaked out by his agent after the deadline passed. I’m sure there were other conditions on that alleged offer, and Bell’s camp isn’t telling us what they were.

Rather, I’m here to criticize the portion of the fan base and the media that was puffing out its collective chest as recently as three weeks ago, laughing at the very notion the team may miss Bell before the season ended.

As if Conner — a back with a history of injuries since his junior year at Pitt — was somehow immune from getting hurt at the NFL’s most dangerous position.

That was ignorant. As we’ve outlined in the past, all Steelers fans should have been conscious of the team’s ugly history when it comes to late-season injuries at running back, which have derailed promising campaigns.

How will the offense look without Conner running the football? If the last few weeks are any indication, not great.

The Steelers have given us previews the last three weeks since they’ve largely forgotten about the running game. The results have been two defeats and a narrow win against Jacksonville. Also, over those three games, they’ve averaged 22.3 points as opposed to the 35.4 average they posted during the previous five wins in a row when Conner was averaging 24.4 touches per game.

In the Jacksonville, Denver and Los Angeles contests, that average dropped to 16.6. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown six interceptions over those three games as the club has become significantly more pass reliant.

Where Conner might be most missed is in the red zone. He had seven touchdowns of 5 yards or less heading into the Jacksonville game. For some reason, the Steelers stopped giving him the ball in those situations in Jacksonville and Denver. Turnovers and ineffectiveness ensued near the opposing goal line.

Tomlin, Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner rediscovered the Conner formula against Los Angeles as Conner bulled into the end zone twice from 1 yard out.

That option may not be there for the next few weeks.

Maybe we all got caught up in the Conner story so much we assumed it had to have a “Cinderella” ending. And Bell would be cast aside like a wicked stepsister.

That may still happen. Conner could get healthy in a week or two.

But “Cinderella” was also the name of an 80s “hair metal” band. And they had a popular song that painted a more accurate description as it relates to Steelers fans who were once celebrating Bell’s absence:

“Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone).”

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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