PITTSBURGH (AP) — Le’Veon Bell’s stall inside the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room has been untouched for months. The Pittsburgh Penguins jersey. The black-and-yellow Jordans. Sweatpants. Cleats. His shoulder pads. Everything remains the same as it was when Bell walked out of the team’s facility in January to begin his standoff with the club.
The only thing that’s been disturbed is the chair. Some days a teammate’s workout clothes dangle from the back of it. On others — like Monday — a Steeler uses the seat as a spot to throw his lunch plate.
When Bell returns to reclaim his spot is uncertain. The first day of the team’s bye week came and went without Bell coming in to sign his one-year franchise tender. What’s becoming increasingly clear, however, is that the Steelers are just fine moving on with Bell, or without him.
The anger over Bell’s decision to not report in time for the regular season opener has subsided. In its place is something akin to exasperation and resolve. One of coach Mike Tomlin’s favorite metaphors is to describe each season as a train that’s on the move.
Pittsburgh (3-2-1) appears to be picking up steam. Bell is standing still. If he’ll ever be able to catch up in time to have any impact on Pittsburgh’s season is anyone’s guess. The last six weeks have been so eventful beyond Bell’s absence — from a sluggish start by the defense to wide receiver Antonio Brown’s weekly histrionics — the players aren’t even getting hit up for inside information on Bell’s plans when they get home from work.
“They know our sole focus is on us winning football games,” right tackle Marcus Gilbert said. “They’re not bothering me with that. It’s strictly about football. Ask me about anything else, the guys on the team currently. But until he shows up, then we can’t talk Le’Veon.”
And at the moment, there’s no reason to. Not with the way James Conner is running the ball. The second-year back rolled up 111 yards rushing and two touchdowns in Pittsburgh’s 28-21 victory over Cincinnati on Sunday, his third game of at least 100 yards and two scores in the first six weeks. Only four other players in NFL history have done that.
“James just wants to put his hand in the pile and be one of the reasons why we win,” Tomlin said. “He wants to prove that (he belongs).”
There appears to be very little proving left to do.
Conner, a former Pitt star, set an Athletic Coast Conference record for touchdowns during his college career but has become perhaps better known for his battle with cancer in 2015 and 2016. On the same day he helped the Steelers to their 18th win in 21 trips to Paul Brown Stadium, he shared a pregame moment with a young fan waging his own war with the disease.
Conner is aware of the platform he’s been given but is also doing his best to keep the focus on his job. He has a high level of respect for Bell — who tweeted out his congratulations after one of Bell’s punishing runs against the Bengals — and wants to continue to be a beacon of hope for cancer patients.
At the same time, he also just wants to tuck the ball under his right arm and run as hard as he can for as long as he can. Asked to describe why he’s becoming more successful as the weeks pass, Conner is quick to point to an offensive line that hasn’t allowed a sack or made him work too hard behind the line of scrimmage during Pittsburgh’s modest two-game winning streak.
“The goons up front, it always starts up front with the O-line,” Conner said. “As they go, we go.”
The question becomes which way the Steelers go when Bell does decide to pull on his familiar No. 26. He considers himself one of the best all-around backs in the league and has the accolades — two-time All-Pro, three-time Pro Bowler — to prove it. Yet he also hasn’t been hit in nine months and has kept a decidedly low profile, at least in terms of his physical activity, during his sabbatical.
“However it all shapes up, we know he’s a player that can’t be replaced, he’s a special player,” Gilbert said. “But any guy that we put in there will be a different type of player. Him and James are different type of running backs and they’ll complement each other really well.”
Then Gilbert paused ever so slightly and drilled down beyond platitudes to reality.
“Like I said, I don’t really want to talk Le’Veon to you until he shows up,” Gilbert said. “Be interested to see what kind of shape he’s in and how he can help better this team because it’s a different outfit than last year.”