It’s an easy narrative to say that when the running game is underperforming, the running back is to blame. After all, he is the one doing the running. And so as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ ground game has gotten off to something less than a running start, he has been an easy target of criticism.
No that it is entirely undeserved. While the offense has had difficulty opening a lot of holes for him to work with, the reality is that he has done a poor job of creating his own offense. I don’t know if he has even broken three or four tackles through three games.
Still, there are many instances in which there is just not a lot that a running back can do other than to get what is being blocked for him, and while Sunday’s performance had been better than in the two previous games—he actually averaged four yards per rush—many of his carries fell into this category.
Take, for example, one of his few short-yardage failures on the year, though it was not on a possession down. On second and three, Bell only managed one. But with the linebacker lurking over the A Gap and Roosevelt Nix blown back by the edge defender, he didn’t have any options.
Or take the carry just two snaps later. On second and 10, he was given the ball out of the shotgun in the right sidecar position with Chris Hubbard at right tackle pulling through the leftside B Gap. With Ramon Foster getting driven back and Alejandro Villanueva struggling to hold off the edge, all he could hope to do was try to squeeze between the narrow crease for two yards. Even the cutback lane was shut off with the linebacker evading Maurkice Pouncey at the second level.
Later in the third quarter, the Steelers tried to run from a two-tight-end set, heavy to the right. Bell showed his typical patience behind the line, and it looked like it might pay off, showing a hint of daylight up the gut, but the inside tight end—Xavier Grimble in this case—couldn’t hold his block, ripping to the inside and making the tackle.
At the top of the fourth quarter, they tried to pull B.J. Finney off the right end, but Hubbard seemed to momentarily lose focus, looking out for another defender, which allowed the edge defender to break free, chasing down Bell as he had to try to get north with JuJu Smith-Schuster unable to hit on his downfield block.
I think that these plays do well in showing just how much frequently goes into building a successful running play—or perhaps more crucially, executing it. The execution has gotten better week by week—I shouldn’t have to point out that this is a selection of bad examples, not a representative sample—but there is still clear need for improvement.