NFL Closeup: Le’Veon Bell’s Progress Report

Progress Report: Don't be a hero. See below.
Progress Report: Don’t be a hero. See below.

Just before the 2013 NFL Draft, I wrote a post about Le’Veon BellThe gist of the analysis addressed why Bell was a polarizing prospect among fans and analysts and why I believed Bell has the athleticism and patience to prove his naysayers incorrect.  Time to check on Bell’s progress.

The major criticisms of Bell’s game are that he 1) runs too much like a small back and won’t make plays with his agility in the NFL and 2) He bounces too many plays outside and needs to run tougher. Based on what I’ve seen this season – and a reflection of much of much of the analysis below – the progress report is a mixed bag.

The critics are correct that Bell makes choices like a small back. However, they are dead wrong about Bell not having enough quickness and agility to make productive plays with this style of running. Because Bell has been able to use his agility and quickness to his advantage, he is bouncing too many plays outside. It’s  not so much that he needs to run tougher because he has shown plenty of power. What’s problematic for some to grasp is that Bell’s agility is at the root of the same types of rookie obstacles that we saw from backs like C.J. Spiller, LeSean McCoy, and Jamaal Charles.

Once this trio of backs learned when to bounce plays outside or drop the pads and pound inside based on down and distance situations, their home run speed became a true factor in their games. The difference between these backs and Bell is that once the Steeler runner learns to base his decision-making on down and distance situations, fans will begin to see the more punishing side of Bell’s game.

Agility and Quickness

Bell has shown that he can bounce plays outside and get the edge on a defense since he earned his first start in the regular season.

Bell makes two cuts towards the edge, beats defensive end Brian Robison around the corner and takes it to the end zone. It’s a product of decent blocking the the cornerback peaking his head inside the tight end at the edge that gives Bell the angle to the flat. One of the things Bell is good at doing consistently is manipulating defenders to commit in the wrong direction and lose their original angle.

Here’s a run against the Lions last week where Bell earns the first down because of his agility. This is a 1st and 10 with 10:18 in the opening quarter against a Lions’ defense that commits eight defenders in the box to stop the run.


In a situation like this, the running back has to demonstrate good press and cut back skills to give his teammates a chance to generate a crease he can exploit. Bell will do this by pressing inside towards the right guard and center before bending the run to the tackle and ends.


Once Bell nears the opening, he cuts outside towards the edge. At this point, Bell opts to make a second press and cut back against the defender at the edge. If he doesn’t do so, the location of the defender’s helmet to the inside shoulder of the tight end indicates that the defender has inside leverage and should be able to wrap Bell at the line of scrimmage for a minimal gain.


Bell reaches the tight end and edge defender and makes a move towards the outside. When he does this, the edge defender and the defensive back in the right flat will react to the move and slide outside just long enough for the Pittsburgh runner to exploit the gap to the end’s inside shoulder.


Dip outside . . .


Edge defender moves head from blocker’s inside shoulder to outside shoulder, giving up his leverage  . . .


Bell slides inside . . .


Bell bursts through the gap inside that he creates with his short area agility. Remember, Bell had excellent agility times during pre-draft workouts. If you didn’t trust what your eyes saw with the former Michigan State runner’s quickness during his college career, his workouts substantiated the analysis that Bell’s quickness would not be an issue.


Bell bursts through the crease and earns 12 yards untouched, forcing the defensive back to give chase rather than approach over top because of his initial move at the edge of the crease.


Bell dips away from the safety as he crosses the first down marker and is eventually dragged to the turf after a gain of 14 yards.



Later in the game, Bell bounces a second run to the far side end on a shotgun run for positive yards in the red zone. A big back bouncing outside to the far side tackle from the shotgun in the red zone cannot be a ponderous runner.


Although this run requires quickness on Bell’s part, it is a well designed run when examining it from the perspective of the formation. The Steelers are in a trips set to the left and this creates a situation where most of the defense is to the left of center. If blocked as planned, the center should be able to reach the linebacker at the right hash, the right guard and right tackle should seal the defensive tackle and defensive end and the receiver in the right flat should handle the cornerback. This could give Bell a one-on-one with the safety.


So far, so good. Bell takes the exchange as the center works towards the linebacker and the guard and center engage the right side of the Lions’ defensive line.


Bell considers working between his backside guard and tackle. On the one hand, I like that he’s at least thinking about getting down hill as soon as possible even if he ultimately bounces the run around his tackle. It’s a good choice, too, because Ndamukong Suh is working free of his man and will be meeting Bell unblocked if the runner enters this hole.


Bell is quick enough to bounce the run around the edge of the right tackle despite the fact that the defender has outside leverage.


If Bell were as slow as characterized by some, this would be a tackle for a loss within the next step, if not right now. Instead, Bell dips the inside shoulder and takes the corner.


Bell is fast enough to turn the corner and get his pads downhill. As the cornerback works up the flat, Bell decides to hurdle the defender.


Up . . .


Over . . .


And still maintains his balance as he lands after contact.


I’m not a big fan of runners hurdling defenders because it’s a reckless decision with more potential harm than good for the back and his football team. However, it’s still a fine display of quickness and agility from a back some deemed unable to execute these types of plays at the highest level of football.

Here’s a rare running play in Pittsburgh where the offensive line creates a hole fast and Bell doesn’t have to do much to create. The primary crease will be at left tackle and the receiver tight to the formation will dip between the end and tackle to root out the defensive back No.28.


The first course of action is for the Steelers’ left tackle, left guard, center, and right guard to slant to the right side and seal the inside while the ends seal the outside. As you can see with the location of the helmets, the offensive line has done its job moving the Patriots defense inside.


Bell approaches the line of scrimmage in a straight line and then bends the run outside to press the hole. The wide receiver tight to the formation at the beginning of the play works inside to address the safety. He doesn’t score a direct it but it’s enough to hook the defender and give Bell room to hit the crease. Bell is agile enough to change direction, make a second shift of weight and get downhill with an angle away from the DB.


The slight stutter and change of direction does the trick and the next three frames show Bell hitting the crease with good burst and gaining positive yards.





The blocking is sound, Bell makes a quick decision, bursts through the crease, and its a six-yard gain.


Of course, rarely does an NFL offensive line open this type of crease on a consistent basis. Good NFL starters have to demonstrate superior athleticism and/or creativity and decision-making to earn quality production. Bell has the athleticism. The decision-making is not all there but compared to other backs that have entered this league and had similar gaps of knowledge and maturity, Bell is on the right track.

Agility and Underrated Power

What I’ve read from critics who I know watch football is that Bell needs to run tougher and he needs to use his frame better. In some respects, I agree. However, there are enough examples where Bell displays power than people overlook because of poor statistical production. It’s also an illustration of a back integrating moves with his upper and lower body and powering through contact.

In fact, I’d say Bell does so many things right on this play, that if I could show him his run and the next 2nd and 4 run I’m going to show you, it would prove an instructive for the rookie to know when to create and when to drop the pads and take whatever is ahead of him. At this point of his rookie year, Bell has to do a better job of reading the field and making the decision that will put his team in the best position to succeed.

On this play, Bell bounces the run outside after the two defensive tackles and the inside linebacker show good position inside to foil a run up the middle.


There are several factors why I think Bell made a good decision to bounce this play outside. The first is the team’s field position. The Steelers are near mid-field and a potential loss of yards here doesn’t compress the range of plays that Pittsburgh might otherwise run if Bell lost yards inside its own 20. Further, it’s a first-quarter run on 2nd and 4. If it was a fourth-quarter run at the edge of field goal range and his team was down by two, then taking a risk to bounce a run outside and lose yards would be a bad decision.

Second, Bell spots three defenders capable of penetrating the middle before he even reaches the line of scrimmage. Bell’s best shot to earn positive yards before dealing with contact is to bounce outside. A third reason, is the position of the cornerback, who is working away from the line of scrimmage and with enough depth that Bell has a chance to win this one-on-one match up.

If the corner had his pads squared down hill and/or closer to the line, Bell would be better served to make one dip to slide to the right side, square his pads as soon as possible and hit the crease against the linebacker. Perhaps he could slide inside this linebacker, avoid direct contact and at least minimize a loss or earn a short gain.  This is what Bell should have done on the next 2nd and 4 run that I show.


On this play, Bell reads the line and reacts accordingly, sliding to the edge after first considering the next hole from the center.


As Bell dips to the edge note the cornerback outside the right hash beginning to square his pads and work to the line of scrimmage. Bell has an advantage due to the distance and the fact that he is the first to get his pads downhill and anticipate the defender.


First, Bell has to take the edge. The rookie does this with a quick stiff arm on the edge defender coming free.


It takes strength, balance, and quickness to ward off a defender while moving east west without a lot of downhill momentum. But because fans aren’t seeing Bell run through open holes with a start of 5-7 yards before dropping the pads on a linebacker and running over the defender, the runner’s power isn’t as obvious.


After turning the corner with the stiff arm, Bell gets down hill and assesses his angle on the cornerback. What I like is that within five yards of making two moves to bounce outside and then a stiff arm, Bell still has a head fake in his arsenal to set up the cornerback. The defender bites outside due to the fake and Bell now has a chance to run inside the defender’s angle.


Now Bell lowers his pads and sizes up the backside pursuit, delivering a forearm on No.28 as he crosses the first down marker.


It’s not a highlight-reel play, but it’s an effective move for a back who has already made several on just this run alone.


It’s also a move that affords Bell the opportunity to gain five yards after contact. When Bell can do a better job of knowing when not to create on runs, he’s going to be even more dangerous when these creative opportunities present themselves.


Another display of power is a four-yard gain on 2nd and 11 with 9:38 in the first quarter of the same game. This is a zone play with Heath Miller functioning as the lead blocker. The line does a good job opening the initial hole, but Miller fails to seal the second level and this is where we get another glimpse of Bell’s strength.


Pittsburgh double teams the back side end and the center and front side guard attack the Patriots’ linebackers.


As Bell approaches the exchange point with Roethlisberger, the position of the silver helmets at the line of scrimmage are indicating this play to the right side should yield a crease at the line of scrimmage. The three Patriots defenders in the middle of the field each have their helmets to the left shoulder of the lineman blocking them. Although the right tackle doesn’t have inside leverage on the front side end, Miller is entering the hole and should help seal that edge so Bell can pass.


As Miller approaches the line of scrimmage, the right tackle has turned the end just enough that Bell should reach the crease untouched. The center has engaged the inside linebacker and the right guard is about to engage Donta Hightower at the right hash.


Bell does a solid job of pressing this crease with an approach to the middle of the line of scrimmage and then dipping to the right as he reaches the crease. I have seen plenty of criticism that Bell is too slow to the hole and he needs to be more aggressive hitting the crease. If Pittsburgh ran a gap-style running offense where the back follows a pulling lineman to one crease and that’s the only true choice for the play design, then I’d agree.

However, zone blocking requires more patience to the hole and then a hard cut and burst down hill when that hole opens. When the line isn’t opening holes fast enough, the back has two choices: create or take whatever he can get with brute power. Once again, this decision-making boils down to field position and down and distance.


Bell gets as close to the line of scrimmage as possible and then dips to his right. Because he exhibits the patience necessary for a zone run, the right tackle has been given the time to turn the end to the outside and the guard has reached Hightower in the second level. If Bell hits the intended crease without this slower approach, he’s likely wrapped by the end and hit by the linebacker at the line of scrimmage for no gain. This is part of Darren McFadden’s problem on zone plays and why the Raiders return to more of a gap scheme with him.

It’s another example why fit with a system is important. If health weren’t an issue for McFadden and he was on a more balanced offense, McFadden’s explosive athleticism and aggressive mindset “to and through” the line of scrimmage is a great match for a gap style offense. Some backs can do both well. Bobby Rainey, the Buccaneers’ new back, has shown good skill as a zone runner and gap runner at Western Kentucky just as he did Sunday against the Falcons. If I were to assess which style he’s best at, I’d say he’s better suited to zone, but his facility with both made him an underrated player.

As Bell crosses the line of scrimmage, Hightower gets outside leverage on the Steelers’ guard.


Hightower, who has the size, weight, and strength advantage on Bell, hits the running back high. However, Bell isn’t the smallish back Hightower is used to running roughshod and the Steelers’ runner doesn’t collapse to the turf on his side despite the linebacker initiating an indirect collision.

In the RSP publication, I grade players on three basic types of balance when they are carrying the football: direct collisions, indirect collisions, and making cuts. Every ball carrier should display good balance when making a cut. If he doesn’t, then he will have initial struggles at the NFL level and he will need to address if footwork as soon as possible.

Skill with handling direct collisions are more times than not a matter of technical skill. Whether a 185-pound scat back or a 250-pound bruiser, good pad level, knee bend, and attacking the oncoming collision can help a player maintain balance or at least fall forward.

However, one of the true ways to tell if a ball carrier has uncommon balance is whether he can stay upright when a bigger man gets a flush hit on him from an indirect angle. Ryan Mathews has had his ups and downs as a professional – and much of it has stemmed from how he handles adversity. When it comes to pure ball carrying, Mathews’ balance to bounce off flush hits from an indirect angle was one of several factors that made him a first-round talent.

Bell doesn’t lose his footing with this hit and he continues forward as the defensive back slips inside Miller and delivers a second hit with Hightower wrapped around the Steelers’ back.


As we see at least once a week in football, a second hit can often dislodge the first defender from the ball carrier and spring that runner loose. The defensive back makes most of his contact on Bell and the runner doesn’t go down. Instead, Bell transfers some of the energy of that collision into momentum to spin.


Bell begins to spin loose in the frame below as Hightower is forced to slide to Bell’s hips in an attempt to drop the runner.


At this point, it’s a stalemate as a third Pats defender enters the fray.


The whistle blows and Bells’ progress is ruled stopped after four yards. Not a great play on 2nd and 11, but this is tough running. It’s not tough and productive for the situation, but the tools are there. Rome wasn’t built in a day and most NFL running games aren’t built during a season.


Decision-Making and Maturity: Room for Improvement

Bell’s athleticism can get him into trouble when the Steelers’ offensive line fails to open a crease and the rookie has the option to create or bull his way into the backs of his teammates and take whatever he can get. As I mentioned earlier, he doesn’t always know how to determine when he should do one or the other.

Here’s a 2nd-and-2 run where I would characterize the play as “right process, wrong outcome” because of the down and distance, the score of the game, time on the clock, and the field position. The Steelers spread the field just enough that it hopes Bell can find a crease on this short-yardage play in Patriots’ territory early in the first quarter of this scoreless game.



As Bell takes the exchange, note the various defenders I’ve circled below and the gaps they are covering. There is no true open at this point of the run. If this was 3rd and 2 or the setting of the game was different, Bell might be best served to ram the ball behind the lineman with the greatest push and get whatever he can to set up a 3rd-and-short.


However, I believe Bell has license to create on this play and he tries to press the hole to the right by beginning his approach towards the left and bending it back.



The Patriots defense has done a good job filling the gaps inside (blue and red) and covering the front side and back side gaps (green and orange).



At this point, Bell should probably lower the pads and take on the linebacker coming over top or try to slide outside No.68 and squeeze the run between this blocker and the backside defensive back No.37. Neither of these options are likely to produce a significant gain, but this “find the home run hole” mentality is what Bell has to temper.



The linebacker shoots the gap, hits Bell in the legs, and drops the runner for a loss. Again, bad outcome but the setting allows some leeway for Bell to be creative and fail with a short loss. It happens to every back in the NFL.

Here’s a play where Bell has to be more conscientious about his decision-making in contrast to the 2nd-and-4 gain where he earns five yards after contact and did a good job reading the defensive back’s position so he could bounce the play outside. This play Bell does everything wrong.


The Steelers’ line hopes to create its primary crease off right tackle and use the fullback, tight end, and wide receiver to seal the edge and second level so Bell has a one-on-one with the safety at the right hash. This is the type of play that is tempting for an athletic runner to bounce outside. Fellow Big-10 alum Laurence Maroney appeared to have turned the corner on a play similar to this during a 59-0 blowout of the Titans in a snowstorm when he kept a play inside, lowered the pads through the defensive back and busted the run up the gut for a touchdown. However Maroney failed to turn the same corner that many of his contemporaries did and left the league shortly after.


Bell approaches the exchange point and the interior linemen are already engaged. If they can force the Patriots defensive linemen to work to left, Bell has a nice press and cut to the right. The frame below illustrates that this is exactly what happens.



Bell will begin his press and cut between the frame above and the next shot. Note the position of the safety. Bell needs to read this player on this 2nd-and-4 run. The Steelers are already down by seven and approaching midfield. This is a time to make a conservative decision and if he breaks some tackles in the first or second level, great. If not, third and short isn’t a bad situation for Pittsburgh.




As Bell begins his cutback in the frame above, note the fullback working through the crease towards the linebacker just inside the right hash. Bell needs to focus on hitting his crease with downhill momentum and getting his pads low. If the fullback gets a good block, Bell might be able to slide inside the safety or run through the defensive back’s hit for a first down.

The worst-case scenario for his play is the edge defender on Heath Miller sliding inside and wrapping Bell at the line of scrimmage. Again, not a big deal in the scheme of this series. However, Bell still has the home run mentality at work and it’s the rookie runner who fails his teammates in this situation.

In the frame below, Bell sees the edge defender’s helmet on Miller’ inside shoulder and fixates on the possibility of bouncing the run to the edge. The corner store is in sight for Bell and he hasn’t learned that there’s a time when taking a side trip is a bad idea. With the safety in position to earn a good angle through three possible gaps and close to the line of scrimmage with his pads down hill, this is one of them. Remember, on the 2nd and 4 play I showed where Bell bounced the play outside for a nice gain, the defensive back began the play working away from the line of scrimmage, the field position was different, and the game was scoreless.




Bell decides to bounce the play to his right because of his fixation on the edge defender’s head inside the tight end. When focusing solely on the first level, this is the correct read. However, within context of the play design and the defensive back, it’s all wrong. This bounce outside will also give the linebacker outside leverage on the fullback.


Bell works across the back of his tight end in the frame below and at that point, the play is over. The edge defender pops outside as the safety continues shooting the inside gap. Bell realizes he has made a mistake midway through his gap and displays the tentative nature that can plague any good zone runner when he makes a bad decision.


Now Bell engages in some unproductive, wishful thinking and tries to revisit the inside gap. The safety shows Bell why it’s too late.



Bell is now forced to plow through the defender to reach the line of scrimmage and earn minimal yardage. If he didn’t get greedy, he might have earned four yards with good pad level, downhill momentum, and a leg drive if he displayed greater maturity.


Bell is a good, young player in a difficult position. The Steelers’ offensive line is struggling, the coaching staff is under pressure, and it’s possible we might see a new offensive system – if not a new staff – in 2014. If Pittsburgh has a different coach next year, Bell – and what he does best as a runner – might not be the best fit for this organization. It will be easy to view the rookie as part of the problem.

If you look at Bell’s skills and decision-making on the field, he’s one issue away from upping his 3.1 yards-per-carry average to the 4.1-4.3 range. Bell needs to study these down and distance situations, do a better job reading the field, and repeat after me when he sees them: Don’t be a hero.


For more analysis of offensive skill players like this post, download the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio available April 1. Prepayment is available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2013 RSP at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.

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