Le’Veon Bell used to show plenty of affection for Mike Tomlin when Tomlin was his coach in Pittsburgh. In February of 2016, following his third season with the Steelers, Bell posted the following video and message regarding Tomlin, who coached him during his first five NFL seasons.
Nearly four years removed from that post, Bell is no longer a Steeler, signing a long-term contract with the Jets this past offseason after sitting out the entire 2018 season over a contract dispute with Pittsburgh. On Sunday, Bell will face the Steelers for the first time, as the 5-9 Jets will look to play the role of spoilers against a Pittsburgh team that is 8-6 and currently holding onto the sixth and final spot in the AFC playoff picture.
While Bell no longer plays for the Steelers, he also no longer has a relationship with Tomlin, something Tomlin himself revealed when asked about how his communication has changed with Bell since he signed with the Jets.
“I have none,” Tomlin said. “I don’t communicate with him. He’s a New York Jet.”
This season has not been a good one for Bell as far as statistics are concerned. In 13 games played, Bell has amassed 1,080 yards this season, an average of just 83 all-purpose yards per game. In 62 regular-season games with the Steelers, Bell averaged 128 all-purpose yards per game while establishing himself as one of the league’s most versatile players.
Despite Bell’s dip in production, Tomlin is expecting his former running back to put his best foot forward against the Steelers.
“We got a lot of respect for Le’Veon,” Tomlin said. ‘We know the type of competitor he is. We know he’s gonna answer the bell and be L. Bell in this game, but it’s our job to minimize that, particularly as it pertains to us securing victory.”
Bell has seen an uptick in production over his last four games. During that span, Bell has averaged nearly 89 all-purpose yards per game that includes a season-high 87 yards on 21 carries during New York’s Week 15 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. He has also caught at least four passes in eight games this season for the Jets, who have won five of their last seven games after a 1-7 start.
“He’s got a complete game,” Tomlin said of Bell, who holds Pittsburgh’s franchise record for most receptions by a running back in a single season. “He can run inside, he can run outside. He’s a big-time inclusion in their passing game, whether it’s out of the backfield or whether they remove him from the backfield. He’s route running in empty sets and so forth. We gotta minimize his impact on the game. When the ball is going through him and he’s being productive, they’re a tough nut to crack in terms of getting behind schedule and creating the type of negativity that we need to create.”
Tomlin joked that, while he doesn’t have to tackle Bell, his defense’s previous experience tackling him during prior training camps should help them on Sunday.
“We’re a type of team that we tackle in preseason and training camp-like settings,” Tomlin said, “so it won’t be the first time that those guys have had an opportunity to combat him in those ways.”
When it comes to his own running game, Tomlin said that the Steelers need to do better in that department after rushing for just 51 yards on 15 carries in last Sunday’s 17-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills. Tomlin said that James Conner’s questionable availability heading into last Sunday’s game may have negatively impacted the division of labor that took place between Pittsburgh’s running backs in practice leading up to the game. Tomlin also acknowledged that both he and Conner were not pleased with Conner’s lack of opportunities (he had just eight carries in Sunday’s loss) during last Sunday’s loss, as Conner will likely have a much larger role in the offensive this Sunday against a Jets’ defense that is second in the league against the run under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
While Tomlin is expecting Bell to bring his “A” game into Sunday’s matchup, he is also expecting another defensive grudge match that has become a trademark of his team’s games this season. Tomlin is also about the current state of his team, as the Steelers control their playoff destiny with two games to go in the regular season.
“I love this time of year,” Tomlin said of December football. “The clarity of it, the weight of it. It’s football. We’re excited about getting into the stadium this weekend, but that excitement means very little without good quality prep. We need a good week this week, particularly with some of the areas that we fell short in (last Sunday’s) game.”