Bell hasn’t signed his $14.5 million franchise tag while preserving his health for a long-term contract in Pittsburgh or elsewhere, but he’s planning a return for the Week 8 matchup against the Cleveland Browns. Conner has produced as the starting running back, rushing for 342 yards and five touchdowns on 84 carries and adding 22 catches for 239 yards.
“I think James has done some amazing things and deserves to be on the field,” Roethlisberger told the media from his locker Wednesday, ahead of Sunday’s matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals. “We also know what Le’Veon is and what he brings to the table. I guess we’ll cross that bridge if and when it happens.”
Bell, an All-Pro in 2017, has averaged nearly 129 total yards per game since entering the league in 2013. He wants to sign with Pittsburgh but rocky franchise-tag negotiations have complicated matters. The Steelers most recently offered a five-year, $70 million deal that Bell rejected because of low guarantees ($17 million).
Bell does a little bit of everything for the offense, and in his absence, the Steelers have asked much of Conner, too. He struggled with pass protection, injuries and conditioning as a rookie but has progressed steadily in his second year. Conner has two fumbles, however, and the rushing attack stalled from Weeks 2-4, averaging 2.8 yards per carry.
But Roethlisberger said the numbers don’t tell the entire story about Conner’s well-rounded game.
“If you look at the overall picture of what we’ve asked him to do every week, I think it’s been going up every week,” Roethlisberger said. “I think that’s what gets lost in what a running back [does] and what he’s been doing — pass blocking, picking up the blitz, catching out of the backfield. I don’t want to jinx anything, but he’s catching almost everything I’m throwing to him, and he’s in the right spot all the time quickly.”
Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said a Bell-Conner combo can be “very effective” because of Bell’s patient running style coupled with Conner’s explosion through the hole. Pittsburgh’s offense typically relies on one workhorse back, but Roethlisberger said both players can help spell each other to stay fresh for a long season.
The Steelers (2-2-1) have a Week 7 bye but need a win over the 4-1 Bengals to tighten the AFC North race. Steelers-Bengals games have featured a litany of injuries and fines for questionable hits. Roethlisberger hopes for a cleaner game, noting NFL rules preventing ill-intended hits haven’t curbed issues in the past.
“It’s not about just the physicality of the football game, to me,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s when it gets the extracurricular, the dirty stuff that you wish was cut out of it, and hope is cut out this time.”