The Pittsburgh Steelers won the AFC North Sunday night, but it came at what could be a severe cost.
Running back Le’Veon Bell took a vicious hit to his knee from Cincinnati Bengals safety Reggie Nelson. The knee bent in a way that goes against its intended design, and Bell limped off.
Immediately it was assumed that doom was coming and the Steelers’ deep playoff dreams would be shattered before January football even started. But maybe not?
There seems to be a reaching, stretching longshot hope that Bell may suit up for Pittsburgh’s Wild Card round matchup against the Baltimore Ravens. Bell avoided ligament damage, which is terrific and feeds the optimism that he could play in even a limited capacity. He has a hyperextension, according to a report from ESPN’s Adam Schefter, and his availability this week rests with pain tolerance and how much he can recover by Saturday.
That’s the optimistic view, one with rainbows and dancing unicorns. The far more realistic outlook is that the Steelers will need to win a playoff game without Bell and he’ll then return for the divisional round.
Sure, the Steelers have plenty of passing game firepower they’ll now lean on heavily. That includes some guy named Antonio Brown, who led the league in receiving yards with 1,698. But everything they do offensively is set by Bell and his elusiveness in the open field.
During any other season that didn’t have DeMarco Murray going kaboom we would be talking about Bell as an MVP candidate. Just how important is he?
- Over the final five weeks of Pittsburgh’s season he averaged an absurd 156 yards from scrimmage per game.
- Along with Murray he was one of only two players to average from than 130 total yards per game throughout the entire year.
- His total yards from scrimmage during the regular season (2,215) accounted for 33.7 percent of the Steelers’ offense.
- He was targeted 105 times as a receiver, and the resulting 83 receptions put Bell behind only the Bears’ Matt Forte among running backs.
- He also had two games with over 180 rushing yards.
So yeah, Bell had a pretty decent season. Can the Steelers win a playoff game without him? Sure, because the Ravens’ 24th-ranked secondary is that bad (allowing 248.7 passing yards per game).
Winning will mean becoming one dimensional. The last time the Ravens came to Heinz Field the Steelers were fine with a high-volume passing attack against a defense that’s among the league’s best while defending the run. The result? Six touchdown passes for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and 340 passing yards at a pace of 9.2 per attempt.
The Steelers can beat the Ravens. But going much deeper into the playoffs without Bell is unlikely, and damn near impossible.