PITTSBURGH — Le’Veon Bell believes he’s a quick healer. Of course, he’d like to stop having to prove it.
The rookie running back will make his long-awaited debut Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers face the Minnesota Vikings in London. Bell hasn’t played since spraining his right foot two carries into a preseason game against Washington last month.
Originally told he would be out eight weeks, Bell plans to be ready in six. He practiced on Wednesday and barring a late setback will be available as the Steelers try to avoid their first 0-4 start since 1986.
While Pittsburgh’s problems go far deeper than the running game — which happens to be 31st in the league — his teammates are anxious to get a look at the second-round pick on the field instead of on the sideline in street clothes.
“I’m just excited to see what he can do because nobody knows,” Ben Roethlisberger said. “Nobody’s seen him in game action.”
Bell was one of the most durable players in the nation during his sophomore and junior seasons at Michigan State. He touched the ball 414 times in 2012 without so much as an ingrown nail. In the span of his first three weeks in Pittsburgh, he sprained his knee, then followed it up by jamming his foot on the second play from scrimmage against the Redskins.
Doctors cleared him for contact last week. Too “rusty” to play in last week’s loss to Chicago, Bell will try to do what he can to help turn things around.
“When I get the ball in my hands, I want to make positive plays and do what I can with it to give my teammates and coaches confidence in me,” Bell said.
The Steelers were confident enough in Bell to let Rashard Mendenhall walk in free agency and make Bell the 48th overall pick in the draft. At 6-foot-2, Bell is tall for a running back, though it’s hard to tell sometimes because of Bell’s churning running style. He made a habit of hurdling defenders at Michigan State and has trimmed down to 230 pounds over the last few months to help him hit the hole a fraction of a second faster.
If anything, Bell will at least put an end to the committee approach that hasn’t really worked. Given ample opportunity to make a case to be the starter the trio of Isaac Redman, Felix Jones and Jonathan Dwyer failed to distinguish themselves. Dwyer showed a burst with a 25-yard sprint against the Bears, but his conditioning remains an issue and he’s a non-factor in the passing game.
That’s where Bell may have his biggest advantage. He caught 32 passes for the Spartans last fall, and a few well-designed screens against the Vikings may help take some of the pressure off an offensive line that at times has looked overmatched without Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who is out for the season with a knee injury.
“We wouldn’t have brought (Bell) here if he wasn’t an all-around back,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s more than just a guy that is going to run the ball.”
Forced off the field for the first time in his career, Bell immersed himself in the playbook.
“Even when I wasn’t playing, I knew everything,” Bell said. “The switches that we do week-to-week, I picked that up quick pretty quick.”
All of which is nice, but Bell understands it’s time for him to stay in the game. His role may be limited as he works his way back but when he’s out there, he knows he has to prove he can withstand the pounding he’s sure to receive against a team that — much like the Steelers — is looking to break out of an early season funk.
“This is my chance to show these guys what I’m all about,” Bell said.
Asked if maybe he’s fibbing a bit about his progress because of the pressure he feels to return and Bell just shakes his head.
“I don’t feel like I’m rushing it at all,” he said. “At the end of the day, I know that I have a long career (ahead), but I feel like I’m ready now. And I’m ready to help this team win games. (And) my foot hasn’t shown any signs of setbacks, so it feels like it’s ready, and I know I’m ready to go.”
NOTES: DE Brett Keisel (hamstring) did not practice on Wednesday. CB Cortez Allen (ankle) and NT Steve McLendon (hamstring) did practice and are expected to play against the Vikings. ... G Ramon Foster had a meeting with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin earlier this week for pointers on how to be a better leader with Pouncey not available. “You don’t want to be a leader in this sport and in this group and talk down to guys,” Foster said. “You’ve got to be able to coach and motivate guys, and I went to him to get some advice about that.”