There would seem to be a slender line between use and overuse when it comes to a running back.
Well, for some, at least.
For others, it isn’t an issue at all, as the latter doesn’t come into play.
Case in point, it was a few years ago — and in a former existence — that I was covering college football for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. After a few weeks, I noticed the running back of a team had a sizable amount of carries and asked the coach if there was any concern about overuse, if there was a chance the back could grow weary and fatigued with the persistent workload.
I’m paraphrasing a bit here, but the coach responded swiftly and without hesitation something pretty close to, “They ain’t show ponies. When you got a thoroughbred, you ride him.”
On Tuesday afternoon in his weekly pontification session, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin pretty much relayed the same thing. And this was after Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went a bit out of his way during his weekly appearance on 93.7 The Fan to discuss how pillar running back Le’Veon Bell might be straddling over that line of use into overuse.
Know what — I agree with Tomlin here.
There are a lot of times I don’t agree with Tomlin, but I agree with Tomlin here.
To wit, Tomlin said of Bell, “He’s a highly conditioned guy. He is a mentally tough guy. Personally, I think he’s built for it. He’s excited about having an opportunity to do that for us.”
That would be this: Playing an almost-unheard of 88 of 90 offensive snaps this past week on the heels of — with an off date in between — toting the rock 33 times against the Titans on Nov. 17. Against the Titans, Bell used the latter stages to batter and brutalize the area between the tackles, churning out tough yards when the Steelers needed them most.
That was the same game LeGarrette Blount walked off the sideline and into the locker room, quitting on his team and finding his way (albeit briefly) on the unemployment line before signing with New England.
Blount, you see, is the rub in all this.
In 12 games this season, Bell has already carried the ball 216 times and pulled in 65 passes; he’s not just on the field for just about every snap, but he’s a very real option to get the football — one way or another — on every play of consequence.
With Blount gone and the tiny and unproven Dri Archer and just plain unproven Josh Harris behind Bell, that’s the way it must remain. If Blount were still here, it might be a different story, but when he rolled out of town, Bell became the only true option for the stretch run.
Certainly, Roethlisberger’s words don’t come without some weight, as he told The Fan: “I don’t know of a running back since I’ve been here that has basically been able to play every single snap, but you do have to be careful … He probably wants to be in there every single play because that’s the type of player he is.”
That’s the type of player he needs to be for these Steelers in the last four games if they want to realize their best chances at making the playoffs.
The front office, if they are concerned about overuse, can go out and procure an established backup in the upcoming offseason.
But for now, Bell is a thoroughbred — he ain’t some show pony. Use him as such.
Colin Dunlap is a featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weeknights from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at email@example.com. Check out his bio here.