PITTSBURGH — Le’Veon Bell spent a portion of his lone day off this week learning the fine art of creating the perfect ice cream bar, a good-natured promotional stunt that poked a little fun at the Pro Bowl running back’s summer-long break from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Turns out, Bell’s pretty adept with a cone in his hand. Still, slinging sundaes isn’t nearly as lucrative as Bell’s day job. At the moment, however, it may be more fun.
The start of the most fiscally and physically important season of Bell’s career began with 47 total yards in a victory over Cleveland.
Sure, penalties and an improved defensive front by the Browns played a factor in holding Bell to his least productive day as a professional.
So did a lack of touches. Bell handled the ball just 13 times, the fewest in a game he’s started and finished since breaking into the league in 2013.
“I think the more I’m involved, the better I get throughout the course of the game,” Bell said. “I start figuring out players and the way they’re playing, the game speed and things like that. I tend to feel like I’m in better shape.
“Over the course of the game, third quarter, when people feel like they’re in the third quarter, I feel like I’m just getting started.”
Something that didn’t happen in Cleveland in Bell’s first real action since he exited early in an AFC title game loss to New England with a groin injury. Bell took a seven-month break from the Steelers after they placed the franchise tag on him in February.
Unable to come to an agreement on a long-term deal, the player who led the NFL in average yards per game in 2016 essentially bet on himself in 2017.
Another breakout season could lead to a massive payday. It also, however, puts Bell in a bit of a difficult position. He wants the Steelers to win. He also needs to be productive to command the salary he believes he deserves, even if he insists he was joking when he implied he was worth $17 million a season while freestyle rapping shortly before his return.
It’s a dilemma the man in charge of figuring out where the ball goes appreciates even if it’s not at the top of his priority list.
“I understand it but at the same time we’re trying to put ourselves in a position to win a world championship and he’s a guy that obviously will be a big factor for us,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said Thursday.
“That will all kind of take care of itself. It’s his second week really. Nobody had their best week last week and so we all need to be better.”
Haley scripts Pittsburgh’s first 10 plays, giving them to the players on the eve of the game to help their mental preparation. The script didn’t feature heaping portions of the player who keyed the nine-game winning streak that carried the Steelers from 4-5 to a division title and a game away from the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh lined up with an empty backfield on the opening series and the first four plays were passes, thanks in part to a pair of holding penalties that eventually turned a first-and-10 into a third-and-25.
Bell didn’t carry the ball until the Steelers’ second possession. The play went for no gain. The first two times Roethlisberger threw the ball Bell’s way, the pass misfired.
“The game dictated the direction we went and their defense dictated things,” Roethlisberger said. “It wasn’t a shut Le’Veon out, let’s see this that and the other. It’s just the way the game unfolded.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made it a point to defend Bell’s issues on Cleveland’s aggressiveness and not on any lack of preparation. Bell didn’t sign his franchise tender until just six days before the opener though all involved insist rust wasn’t a problem.
“You can sing that Le’Veon Bell ‘camp’ song all you want,” Tomlin said. “He’s here. He’s working. It’s Week Two. We’re getting ready to play the Minnesota Vikings. I’m done with it.”
So are Bell’s teammates. There are no worries — yet — about Bell trying to press or putting his own agenda ahead of the other 52 guys on the roster. His patience and vision are part of what makes him so dynamic.
The blocking in front of him could have been better. So could the execution. A sliver of daylight or two and all of a sudden Bell is back to being Bell and the Steelers are back to being the Steelers.
“Nobody wants to hear about the labor pains,” guard Ramon Foster said. “They just want to see the baby.”
NOTES: LB Bud Dupree (shoulder) was limited in practice on Thursday. … DE Stephon Tuitt (left biceps) and S J.J. Wilcox (concussion) missed practice for the second straight day. Tomlin said on Tuesday players who can’t practice at least once during the week are unlikely to play on Sunday. … TE Vance McDonald (back) and OL Gerald Hawkins (knee) were also out.