The Pittsburgh Steelers face the Kansas City Chiefs live on Sky Sports on Sunday, again without their All-Pro running back.
On the opening Sunday of the season, the Steelers ended their game with the Cleveland Browns in a 21-21 tie, making it the first kick-off weekend tie since 1971, and the first time Pittsburgh had not beaten Cleveland in seven meetings.
Last night, Cincinnati moved to 2-0 and got their first division win in the AFC North over the Ravens.
While all this has happened, the Steelers have been without their star running back and receiver Le’Veon Bell, who is holding out for a new contract or a trade. Earlier this week, they removed him from the depth chart on their website completely.
And this Sunday – live on Sky Sports – they face the red-hot Kansas City Chiefs. With all the drama surrounding them, how will they fare without Bell moving forward?
Breaking down Ben against the Browns
Much was made of the Browns blowing their opportunity to win with just seconds remaining. From the outside looking in, it appeared Cleveland should have taken the victory. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger turned the ball over five times (three interceptions, two lost fumbles), including a late turnover that put Cleveland deep into Steelers’ territory.
However, Pittsburgh had a missed field goal of their own, and moved the ball with ease.
Rob Ryan and Solomon Wilcots told Sky Sports we shouldn’t worry too much about the offense. Ryan said: “I know Bell wasn’t there, but they still hung up  yards.”
Wilcots defended the QB. He said: “There were extenuating circumstances on a few of the interceptions. I thought the first was just a bad decision and throw.
“With the long throw, if we showed the All-22, you can see Antonio Brown is running away from the defensive back but the wind blew the ball back – it looked as if he threw it to the defensive back and not the receiver. That was a wind-aided interception.
“The other one went of the hands of Jesse James – he should have caught it.”
So, the quarterback had a down game, but was mostly unaffected by Bell’s absence. How about the running game?
Can James Conner fill the void?
If the Steelers’ ability to replace Bell was based purely on his immediate backup’s statistics on Sunday, the outcome was clear: Pittsburgh didn’t miss a beat with second-year runner Conner in the backfield.
He ran the ball 31 times for 135 yards, and added 57 yards through the air on five catches for 192 scrimmage yards. That led the league through Week One and, let’s face it: the numbers were Bell-like.
“Conner is not the same player, Wilcots said. “However, he’s a very good player. I don’t think he’s the receiver that Bell was typically.
“He turned some short catches into runs. He’s a really good runner, but Ben is just really good at distributing the ball. He looks to his backs on check-downs and out of the backfield, and they are using Conner mostly in the same way.
“There’s one thing they aren’t doing with Conner – they would put Bell out like a receiver, split him out. I have not seen them do that with Conner. Not isolated in coverage.”
Despite the subtle differences in style, one thing was made clear: The Steelers like Conner, and they have no problem feeding him the ball. Another check.
Antonio Brown is still the best in the business
While Ben was faltering and Bell was absent, the third of the ‘Killer B’ trio – Antonio Brown – was his usual, consistent self with nine catches, 93 yards and a typical touchdown catch along the sideline that few receivers in the league could make.
Brown reached 10,000 career receiving yards on Sunday in just his 116th career game, tying Torry Holt for the second-fewest games to reach that make. Only Calvin Johnson (in 115) reached it quicker.
The 30-year-old has had over 100 receptions and 1,200 yards in five straight seasons and stands alone as the best wideout over that period.
Regardless of the drama in the backfield, Pittsburgh know they can always rely on their star on the outside. Is there any reason for concern at all?
What happens moving forward?
Both analysts recalled former Steeler Willie Parker’s time in Pittsburgh when considering Bell’s situation. Ryan said: “You could say they miss him, but they missed Willie Parker too and just kept on rolling.”
Wilcots explained how Parker was in a similar situation: He claimed the team weren’t focusing on him and the running game, and head coach Mike Tomlin responded with: “Every day I walk by five Lombardi Trophies, not five rushing titles.”
“In other words,” Wilcots said, “we’re not here to get you numbers, to get Bell numbers or a big contract. That’s not what we are about.
“That is the Steeler way – it’s about winning.”
Ryan: “They are going to win without him.”
Wilcots: “If you’re going to be that guy, we’re moving on.”
There you have it. The pair agree that Pittsburgh – led by Tomlin – will adapt and work it out without Bell. And on Sunday, they’ll have a major test of the season when perennial playoff contenders Kansas City come to town.
Last season, Pittsburgh ended the Chiefs’ unbeaten 5-0 start with a win at Arrowhead Stadium on the back of a 32-carry, 179-yard rushing performance from Bell. This time around, they’ll hope to do it at home – without one of the most productive players in the league.
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