Should the Steelers start Conner or Bell?

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Offense drives the NFL. You need as many playmakers on the field as you can get.  Sometimes two of those guys play the same position.

The holdout of Pittsburgh Steeler’s running back Le’Veon Bell could soon come to an end as rumors have circulated that he could return to the team in the near future, possibly after the bye week. This could provide an interesting dilemma for the team as James Conner, starting in his stead, has proven to be an effective lead back, showing good running ability, pass catching capability and improvement as a pass blocker.

If you look at a comparison of Conner’s first six games in 2018 with Bell’s in 2017 you’ll see they are quite similar. In 2017, Bell had 164 touches for 706 yards and 4 touchdowns, while this season Conner has 129 touches for 710 yards and 7 touchdowns. Conner is averaging almost 1.2 yards per touch more than Bell over the time period.

What will happen?

There has been speculation as to who will start if and when Bell comes back. Conner has certainly earned the opportunity but Bell, who considers himself an offensive weapon more than a pure running back, has the pedigree of being the bell cow with 3 seasons of at least 1,800 yards of total offense in his career.

Maybe the answer to who should start shouldn’t be Conner or Bell? Maybe the answer is yes.

Looking at the production from the Steelers offense this season there isn’t a lot of depth following Conner (710 yards), Antonio Brown (478 yards) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (561 yards). After those three the next highest producers are the TEs Vance McDonald and Jesse James, each with 274 yards which is pretty good but they aren’t consistent game to game. The next highest receiver or running back is Ryan Switzer with 81 yards.

Why not use Conner and Bell on the field together? Offensive Coordinator Randy Fichtner should be salivating at the chance of doing just that. There are so many ways you could line them up, use motion or misdirection to set up mismatches to get them in to a one on one situation. For example, they could run 21 personnel with both backs in the backfield and motion Bell out, use both in a split back formation or even shift both and go empty. That is just 3 options from one personnel grouping and the possibilities are nearly endless.

We’ve already seen the use of Bell as a receiver on the outside. He is a good route runner with good hands who can beat safeties and linebackers. The possibility that they could leave Conner where he is as the lead back and use Bell more as a receiver split out or in the slot is to take advantage of his skill is real. If they do use him this way, Jaylen Samuels should pay close attention as it could be a way to use him next season. Here are a couple of plays showing Bell lined up outside.

Bell Split Wide Left

With the Steelers aligned in a four wide set, Bell (#26) is split wide left. He gets a one on one situation and is able to beat safety Tony Jefferson (#23) to the inside. He shakes off a couple of would be tacklers to get the touchdown.

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Bell Split Wide Right

Bunch formation to the left. Antonio Brown in the slot right and Bell wide right with 3 defenders to their side. Brown draws double coverage and Bell uses a stutter step with a nod to the outside to beat Jourdan Lewis (#27) inside.

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With both Conner and Bell on the field they could expand the offensive capabilities. Here are a few options run by other teams. The two players could be interchangeable in these plays with either able to be the play maker.

Ekeler Jet Sweep

The Los Angeles Chargers Austin Ekeler (#30) lined up on the left wing with Melvin Gordon (#28) dotting the i. Gordon moves to his left at the snap, holding the attention of the linebackers, while Ekeler runs the jet sweep to the right.

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McCaffrey Option Left

The Carolina Panther’s Christian McCaffrey (#22) is lined up behind the QB in the gun and Jonathan Stewart (#28) is offset left. It’s a triple option with Cam Newton (#1) having the option to give to Stewart up the middle or pitching to McCaffrey to the outside.

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Kamara Shovel Pass

The New Orleans Saints offense is always creative. Here is a Jet sweep motion from Ted Ginn (#19) coming from the left to the right getting a couple defenders moving outside with him. Alvin Kamara (#41) takes the shovel pass inside to the house. Put Bell in the Ginn role and this could be successful.

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McCaffrey Screen

McCaffrey starts in the slot right and motions to the backfield, flanking Newton to the left. At the snap, McCaffrey loops behind Newton to the right and catches a swing with a lineman out in front.

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Ekeler Reverse

Bunch formation to the right with Ekeler on the outside with Gordon again in the I formation. A fake to Gordon freezes the right defensive end just enough allowing the TE to pass on the slice block to get out and lead for Ekeler on the reverse.

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This is just a handful of options. The opportunity is there for the offense to be as creative as they can imagine.

All Hands on Deck

The odds are highly in favor of this being the last season for Bell with the Steelers so they will try to get as much out of him as they can. Ben Roethlisberger is in his 15th season and to make a run at the Super Bowl before he retires they will need all the play makers on the field as much as possible. Putting Brown, Smith-Schuster, Conner and Bell on the field at the same time would put a lot of pressure on the defense throughout the rest of the season.

Now they just need Bell to show up.

Follow Tom on Twitter @THMead3. Check out his other work here, such as his look at if predictiong turnover of playoff teams is possible, his preview Tight End red zone opportunities or his look at how paying a high salary veteran QB may hurt your chances of winning.

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