Le’Veon Bell finds himself on the cusp of accomplishing a rare feat not only in Steelers history, but in the NFL as well.
Not many Steelers have ever won a league rushing title, and Bell leads the NFL with 886 yards after 10 games.
The last Steelers player to lead the league in rushing? Not Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis. Not Hall of Famer Franco Harris. Not Barry Foster, who holds the Steelers record with 1,690 yards rushing in 1992.
It happened 71 years ago, when Bullet Bill Dudley led the NFL with 604 yards. He also won it in 1942 with 696 yards and is in the Hall of Fame. The only other Steelers player to win a rushing title was Byron “Whizzer” White as a rookie in 1938 with 567 yards.
Bell has said consistently that while he’d like to win the rushing title, it’s not the most important thing to him.
“We’ve been just kind of looking at the bigger picture, that’s trying to get to the playoffs and win the Super Bowl,’’ he said Wednesday. “That’s the only thing we’re worried about.”
Bell also can do something no one in the NFL has done since World War II. This would be a more dubious honor. He averages 3.8 yards per carry and no back has won the rushing title by averaging fewer than four yards a carry since Bill Paschal of the New York Giants did it in consecutive seasons in 1943 (3.9) and 1944 (3.8) when most able-bodied men wore a different kind of uniform.
Bell’s average per carry is way off his career norm. He averaged a career-high 4.9 yards per carry last season, matching that of 2015 when he played only six games. Over his first four seasons, Bell averaged 4.5 yards a carry.
He did win the AFC rushing title in 2014 with 1,361 yards, second in the NFL to DeMarco Murray of Dallas with 1,845 yards. He and Foster (in ’92) are the only Steelers since White and Dudley to even lead their conference in rushing.
Bell’s closest competitors for the NFL title this year are Kansas City rookie Kareem Hunt with 873 yards and Jordan Howard of the Chicago Bears with 841. Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott, who won the rushing title last season with 1,631 yards, will have a hard time defending it after being suspended for four games. Bell might have given Elliott a run for the rushing title last season, but he missed the first three games under suspension and was held out of the meaningless season finale against Cleveland. He finished with 1,268 yards.
But Bell has not been productive of late on the ground. He has not had a 100-yard game in a month, since rushing for 134 yards on 35 carries against Cincinnati. Since then, he’s produced ground games of 76, 80 and 46 yards.
Still, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy says Bell will be a tough runner to defend Sunday night at Heinz Field. Bell also has 49 pass receptions.
“He can do it all,’’ McCarthy said Wednesday. He’s a complete back. The first thing I always look for in running backs is can they play all three downs and he’s definitely that. One of the best in the business, he’s playing the best right now clearly.
“His run style’s different. He’s so patient, you have to stay disciplined in your gaps. He begs you to peak on your leverage, and he has that second gear where he can take advantage of it and get to the second level immediately. He’s a unique, dynamic player.”
The closest a modern Steelers player came to winning the NFL rushing title was Willie Parker in 2007. He led the league in rushing when his leg was broken early in the 15th game of the season at St. Louis, virtually missing the last two games. His 1,316 yards finished behind LaDainian Tomlinson’s 1,474.
Since Antonio Brown also leads the NFL in receiving, the Steelers are on pace for another first. They have never had the league’s leading rusher and receiver in the same season.