PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Le’Veon Bell stood at his locker, his face covered in sweat and his eagerness to kickstart his stalled NFL career palpable.
His three-game suspension for a second violation of the league’s substance abuse policy over, the Pittsburgh Steelers running back is ready to get back to work, particularly after spending Sunday afternoon watching his teammates get clobbered across the state in Philadelphia.
“It sucked,” Bell said.
Pretty much. The team that looked borderline unstoppable at times during wins over Washington and Cincinnati was a mess against the Eagles. DeAngelo Williams, who filled in so brilliantly for Bell during the opening two weeks, slogged for just 21 yards. The offense posted its lowest point total in five years and the defense spent the afternoon futilely trying to make Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz look like a rookie.
Enter Bell, limited to six of Pittsburgh’s last 22 games thanks to knee injuries and run-ins with the league’s drug policy. An All-Pro in 2014 when he emerged as one of the best all-around backs in the league, Bell believes he’s a better player than the one last seen being carted off the field in a loss to the Bengals last November with a torn MCL in his right knee.
“I’m a lot smarter,” Bell said. “So many things I did my (in 2014) were good things. But I look back at my film now and I’m like, `What am I doing on this play? What am I doing on that play?”’
Sunday night’s visit from Kansas City (2-1) marks Bell’s first appearance in a game that matters in 11 months. He insists his surgically repaired right knee is fine. So, too, is the desire to prove that he’s all the way back. The faster the better.
“I’ve always felt like I had to prove something to somebody,” Bell said. “That is never going to go away. I’m always going to have this personal chip on my shoulder.”
Even if one of Bell’s biggest enemies the last two years has been himself. He sat the first two games of the 2015 season as part of the fallout for his arrest on DUI and drug possession charges in August, 2014. Another four-game suspension (eventually reduced to three) came down in August after Bell says he overslept and missed a drug test.
“I’m not a perfect person, I never will be,” he said. “I know there are some things I can get better (at).”
Probably a good idea as Bell enters the final year of the rookie contract he signed after the Steelers took him in the second round of the 2013 draft. He appeared on the verge of stardom in 2014 when he put up a combined 2,215 yards from scrimmage and proved just as dangerous catching passes as he was patiently setting up his blockers following a handoff.
Over the last 330 days he’s released his own hip-hop mixtape (under the pseudonym “Juice”) and collaborated with rap legend Snoop Dogg on another track. What he hasn’t done, however, is score a touchdown or participated in a Pittsburgh victory. He made a token appearance in the first half of the Steelers’ third preseason game in August but otherwise he’s been a bystander.
For the majority of Bell’s absence, Pittsburgh’s offense hardly looked like it missed him. Williams was steady and occasionally spectacular over the second half of the 2015 season and led the NFL in rushing through the first two weeks of 2016 before the team-wide pratfall in Philly.
Bell believes there’s a chance for the Steelers to go to a two-back system, though Williams himself has said repeatedly he expects to go back to a secondary role once Bell is ready to go. Bell understands there may be some rust, which is why he won’t shy away from contact during practice this week.
“For me not to be hit as much since last November, I’m obviously going to want a little contact, blitz pickup, just to get ready for it,” he said.
Bell’s teammates are certainly ready for his familiar No. 26 to join them, particularly after a three-hour reality check at the hands of the Eagles.
“He brings a lot of energy to the huddle,” left tackle Alejandro Villaneuva said. “We’re just happy he can recover from this incident and get his career back because that’s what matters to him and matters to us as well.”
NOTES: S Robert Golden underwent an MRI on Monday to have the hamstring he injured against Philadelphia examined but is uncertain if he’ll be ready by Sunday.