Week 1 is in the books, the Cleveland Browns are undefeated, and for the first time in four years, they didn’t lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers, although they didn’t win either, but baby steps for an organisation that hasn’t won since Christmas Eve 2016.
The big story headed into the game was that Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh’s star running back, had yet to report for the season in a dispute over his contract. Bell was franchised tagged by the organisation meaning he would be playing on a one-year deal with a sizeable £9.2 million for the season’s work. Not bad, right?
In a league where concussion and way of life after a career are becoming increasing factors, the running back position involves some of the most violent of collisions. Bell has been a workhorse for the Steelers over his five-year rookie contract, running the ball more than 1,200 times, 321 of those last year, with 87 receptions in the passing game to boot. Bell was undoubtedly crucial to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s offence last year.
Bell is aware of his value and knows that even if he sits out the whole year, losing £650,000 for each game, he will still be able to hit free agency come March 2019. The running back is also aware that he is one bad hit away from his career ending. By sitting out this season, Bell will avoid being a player the Steelers can run into the ground. The 26-year-old is also aware that come next year he will sign a contract that will guarantee money and rival any other running back surpassing this year’s £9m.
The oft-quoted mantra in NFL locker rooms is “next man up”, and the Steelers showed that in this case, that was James Conner. The second-year player who rushed for 144 yards all last season looked like a superstar. The 23-year-old Pennsylvania native rushed for 135 yards and had 57 yards in the passing game. Add to that two touchdowns, and maybe the Roethlisberger-led offence won’t miss Bell as much as the running back wants the team to believe.
Of course, we won’t get carried away. After all, it was one game against a team that haven’t won in nearly two years, and not to forget the Steelers didn’t win the game – it ended in a tie, the first on opening day since 1971.
What this does show is that as much as a dynamic running back can help a team to establish their ground game, the players in front of him can have a bigger influence. The Pittsburgh Steelers are known as a tough team who are willing to put the hard yards in when it matters; it is after all the Steeler way.
You don’t achieve a run game without the talent of offensive line, the big boys up front who protect the quarterback and make holes for the running back while getting little credit. The value of these players cannot be understated; it’s the reason that QBs will often treat them to extravagant gifts, after all their career is usually in the hands of these men.
Bell is no doubt a talented player and his versatility will see him get the paycheck he desires, even if it’s not in the Steel City. However, beware the players who believe their own hype, as DeMarco Murray found out.
After two great seasons in Dallas, Murray chose to leave while demand was high and joined Philadelphia. After a below-par season he was on his way to Tennessee where he has done ok, but never hit the heights he did in Dallas. The reason? The two years he was in Dallas they had arguably the best offensive line in the league, a line strong enough to make a good player look great.
So while you are watching the NFL this Sunday, please take a look at the big guys up front because more often or not they decide the game.