PITTSBURGH — Le’Veon Bell wants the ball in his hands. Always.
First down. Fourth down. First quarter or overtime. The Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back figures the best chance for his team to be successful is with the ball tucked under his right arm and his legs churning upfield.
“I just want to win,” Bell said. “I can do a lot of things. I’m a smart player so I can pick up things quick. I don’t have many weaknesses and a lot of strengths.”
The second-round draft pick will get a chance to showcase them this fall after Pittsburgh selected him with the 48th overall pick in last month’s draft, drawn by Bell’s versatility and unusual size. Listed at 245 pounds during his career at Michigan State, the most startling thing about Bell — who has shed 15 pounds in the last five months — is his height.
At 6-foot-2, he looks like a wide receiver. And for a time as a kid, he figured that’s where he was headed.
“When I was 4 years old, my uncle was throwing the ball to me, just working on me catching the ball,” Bell said. “Eventually we got to the point of running routes and being able to get open. I just kept running them and kept getting better at it.”
Bell idolized Randy Moss. One problem: Even on his best days, Moss would touch the ball only a dozen times. That wasn’t nearly enough for Bell. Give it to him 40 times and he’ll wonder why he didn’t get it 41.
That certainly wasn’t an issue while playing for the Spartans. The defining moment of his career came against Boise State last fall, when he rushed for 210 yards on 44 carries and added six receptions for 55 yards in a 17-13 comeback win.
“I didn’t even know I got the ball 50 times,” Bell said. “I didn’t ever realize I had the ball that many times because I was so in the zone just wanting us to win this game. I was looking up at the scoreboard and I see we’re losing and I’m like, ‘Give me the ball, I’m just trying to score.’”
Bell’s 5-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter propelled Michigan State to victory and sent him shooting up NFL draft boards. Now Bell finds himself tasked with trying to make sense of a crowded Steelers backfield searching for a starter after Rashard Mendenhall left for Arizona in the offseason.
Pittsburgh struggled to find any consistency in the running game last fall as Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman took turns getting injured or finding a spot in coach Mike Tomlin’s doghouse. The Steelers finished in the bottom six in the league in 2012 in yards rushing (26th), rushing touchdowns (27th) and yards per carry (27th). Not exactly the way offensive coordinator Todd Haley drew it up.
A constant rotation of healthy bodies along the line of scrimmage didn’t help. Neither did the inability of Dwyer or Redman to make a strong case for supplanting Mendenhall as the team’s No. 1 back. Dwyer led the team with 634 yards on the ground — with Redman second at 410 — but both had trouble dealing with the physical punishment of being the feature back.
Pittsburgh signed the restricted free agents to one-year deals in the offseason and both seem to understand this is their last chance to find a permanent home with the Steelers. Redman spent a portion of his offseason working at a speed camp in Tampa, Fla., where he lost 10 pounds and tried to put the ankle issues that plagued him in 2012 firmly in the past.
“It was tough,” Redman said. “I felt like it was my year to show I could be a No. 1 running back.”
It didn’t quite happen, which is one of the reasons Redman wasn’t surprised when the Steelers used a high draft pick on Bell. Pittsburgh needed depth after Mendenhall left and rookie Chris Rainey was cut. Redman just isn’t convinced that Bell’s high draft selection means Bell has the inside track on being the starter when the season opens Sept. 8 against Tennessee.
“There’s going to be a heated competition in training camp,” Redman said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
So is Dwyer, who shares the same agent as Bell. The two became friends before the draft and that hasn’t changed even now that they find themselves battling for the top spot on the depth chart, a position Dwyer believes he’s earned.
“I think this year it’s up to me,” Dwyer said. “It’s my job to lose, and I’m going to do everything that I can to fortify myself here.”
Time may be running out. Bell has already won raves from the coaching staff with his preparation, and his durability at Michigan State makes the Steelers hopeful he can take the pounding that comes with a heavy workload. It certainly wasn’t a problem last fall, when his 382 carries led all of the NCAA’s bowl subdivision.
Considering his size, Bell has an ability to make himself small when a defender comes his way, allowing him to avoid the punishing collision that threaten to cut short a career.
“I’m either bouncing off guys or sliding past guys,” he said. “Guys mostly just try to grab me and hold onto me. It’s not like I take a lot of big hits.”
Bell, and the Steelers, would prefer he deliver them instead. And if he can bring a semblance of order to the backfield, even better. Bell insists he’s up for anything.
“I’m not sure what they’re looking for,” he said. “I’m just trying to help this team go out there and compete and win games.”
NOTES: The Steelers signed two more draft picks on Thursday as wide receiver Marcus Wheaton (third round) and cornerback Terry Hawthorne (fifth round) both agreed to four-year deals. Terms were not disclosed ... The team is off for the weekend. Organized team activities start up again next Tuesday.