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Reporters' Notebook

Le'Veon Bell on pass-catching prowess; worries about J.J. Watt?

With Week 4 of the NFL season upon us, NFL Media's network of reporters gets you up to speed with the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

But first, how Le'Veon Bell boosts Pittsburgh's passing attack ...

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Antonio Brown says Le'Veon Bell is an exceptional receiver because he understands leverage. William Gay says it's because Bell has soft hands. Todd Haley says it's because he takes pride in the craft of receiving. Darrius Heyward-Bey says it's because he knows how to get open.

Bell says no, they're all wrong.

"It's because I'm a good basketball player," the Steelers' all-world, uber running back said. "I run my routes like a crossover dribble. It's about taking angles, faking one way but going the other, and being savvy. And then instead of running to the basket, I'm running away from the defender."

Sure, that sounds equivalent. And even if it isn't, there's still this: Bell can catch the ball. Really, really well.

Bell returns to the Steelers' this week, having served a three-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. He'll make his 2016 debut in prime time, as the Steelers host the Chiefs on "Sunday Night Football."

In three seasons, Bell has proven to be as dynamic a back as the league has. He's powerful and painstakingly patient. He has an exceptional burst and is both quick and fast. He's an every-down back who picks up blitzes, loves to block and makes an already-potent Steelers offense even more fearsome. In no small part because he is ... that's right ... an exceptional receiver.

"I definitely think he's one of our best receivers," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said Wednesday, one day after pronouncing him the team's second-best, behind only Antonio Brown. Perhaps that day made Roethlisberger rethink if that sounded like an indictment of the Steelers' receiving corps, but really, it's not. Bell is working at this.

Since 2014, Bell has more receptions per game (4.9) and receiving yards per game (45.0) than any other NFL running back who's played in at least 10 contests. In that time, he ranks second only to Brown among Steelers in receptions per game and yards after the catch. And in games that both he and Roethlisberger have played in that same span, he accounts for 19.5 percent of the quarterback's completions.

A fourth-year pro out of Michigan State, Bell watches Brown every day, logging how he releases, how he cuts in and out of breaks and how he runs his routes. He works on his timing with Roethlisberger as a receiver would, and there was a clear pride in his voice this week when he said he feels much more fluid than he did a year ago.

During his suspension, when he couldn't work with his teammates, Bell said he ran routes every day and caught anywhere between 100 and 200 balls afterwards. If rushing the ball is instinctual, running routes is more about repetitions, and understanding defensive coverages.

Bell says Haley, his offensive coordinator, is right in that he does take pride in getting better at this part of his game. He dropped 20 pounds between his first and second seasons and he credits that with making a "huge difference."

"I used to be more of a bruiser. I wanted to run through people. Now I try to run around them," Bell said, laughing, before joking that maybe that was a sign of his being smarter.

But just as Roethlisberger said the Steelers weren't going to swap the RB in front of Bell's name for a WR, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Bell said he isn't angling to change positions, just to be more useful.

"I love being a running back. But I really love being a football player," he said. "This is about being a football player."

In Bell's absence, DeAngelo Williams has performed more than capably. The 33-year-old led the league in rushing through the first two weeks, he still has plenty of burst, and both Haley and Bell said there has to be a place to keep him on the field.

"He's a playmaker. You play playmakers," Bell said. "Even when I play video games, like 'Madden,' I always have two or three guys in the backfield."

This is the part Haley called "fun" on Thursday. When he was Kansas City's head coach, Haley had a diverse backfield featuring Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones and Dexter McCluster -- and he found creative ways to mix and match their skill sets. Haley brought up his time as an assistant with the Jets, too, when New York had Curtis Martin and Richie Anderson, who was listed as a fullback but carried the ball and one year caught 88 passes.

"We played a lot of snaps with multiple halfbacks on the field," Haley said of his three years as the Chiefs' head man. "It's fun when you have good players that are versatile. It gets your creative juices flowing."

Haley has split Bell out wide and he's motioned him out of the backfield. Bell's excellent in space -- and a covetable mismatch: He can juke a bigger linebacker and he can bully a smaller defensive back. And he's still strong enough to run over either.

Bell said, for his part, he's excited about the possibilities. In just a few days of practice this week, he's lined up in more spots, and done more things than he said he did all last year. He caught a deep ball on a go route from Roethlisberger on Wednesday and he said that's his ultimate goal: to be able to run every route on the tree.

"I don't want to just be the guy to dump the ball off to, or the guy who can do the checkdowns. I want to do the intermediate ones, and the deep ones," Bell said. "Whatever they decide to call, I want to be able to do it."

He's on his way.

And now, the rest of this week's notes from NFL Media's reporters:

ATLANTA FALCONS: Searching for a pass rush. With the team out to a 2-1 start, one of the key upgrades the Falcons feel they've made is in team speed. While they are still hoping for a speed receiver to emerge to open things up for the rest of the offense, I was told they love the defensive pursuit and coverage skills of players like rookie middle linebacker Deion Jones.

What they still haven't found: an individual who can get to the quarterback. Linebacker Vic Beasley is trying to figure things out in Year 2, and old man Dwight Freeney (36) is a part-time player. So coach Dan Quinn said he's having to use a lot of twists, stunts and other packages to manufacture pressure.

The results so far: three sacks on the season, which ranks among the worst in the NFL. If the Falcons don't improve in that area, more pressure will be put on their explosive offense.

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BUFFALO BILLS: McCoy loving new OC's rushing approach. On most plays last Sunday, LeSean McCoy set up deeper in the backfield, as the Bills used more I-formation sets in their first game under new offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn. Fullback Jerome Felton logged 16 offensive snaps against the Cardinals after recording just five vs. the Jetsin Week 2.

McCoy liked it, as his stats -- 17 carries, 110 yards, two touchdowns -- show. In that game, he nearly matched his total yards of 117 (on 31 rushes) in the first two games of 2016.

"You're getting the ball deep, so I can see," McCoy told me Wednesday. "I can see if I want to go right, left, up the middle. I can see who's getting beat, who has a great block. I can see all those things. That's the difference, I think."

McCoy, who looks lean, said he weighs 208 to 210 pounds -- the lightest he's been in years, he said -- and feels great.

Bills buoyed by big victory. Just being around the Bills for a few hours, it was clear the win over Arizona lifted their spirits.

"We never discussed going undefeated. That was never the goal," McCoy said. "The goal was to win the division, and that goal is still in reach. We've got to go out there and get a W this week."

The Billsvisit the Patriots on Sunday.

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HOUSTON TEXANS: Worried about Watt? The news earlier this week that defensive end J.J. Watt would have to go on injured reserve after re-aggravating his surgically repaired back hit the Texans hard. There was typical sentiment about how much they will miss him, along with plenty of "next-man-up" analogies. Then on Thursday night, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that Watt underwent surgery and would indeed miss the rest of the 2016 season.

However, one of Watt's starting defensive teammates said he wasn't hardly as worried about how the team would do during Watt's absence as he was about Watt himself. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year is now ticketed for lengthy rest and rehab. And almost everything Watt does revolves around playing, the teammate said. Watt never stops training from the time one season ends until the next one begins. He doesn't hang out much, either, the teammate said. Basically, Watt's gotten to where he has through insanely hard work; without it, would he be compromised?

Without being able to do his normal routine of training, practicing and playing football, it could be hard, maybe even tormenting for Watt. Then again, it could be somewhat healthy. He could give his body and mind a needed breather, the teammate said.

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NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Belichick not bothered by Ryan's brashness.Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan kicked off his week by doing a mumbling imitation of Patriots coach Bill Belichick delivering an injury report and followed it up later in the week with an explanation that he had to be himself.

It would be difficult to find two more disparate personalities in NFL coaching circles. But Ryan's career has been intertwined with Belichick's ever since Ryan announced, upon his arrival at the New York Jets, that he was not there to kiss Belichick's rings. The needling hasn't stopped, even if Ryan's victories have been in short supply. Ryan is 4-11 against Belichick -- there was one stunning playoff victory with the Jets -- and the Patriots have beaten Ryan-coached teams the last seven times they have played in Foxborough.

This Sunday will be the first time a Ryan-coached team faces the Patriots without Tom Brady, though, and while Belichick sorted through his quarterbacking options with both Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett limited participants in early practices, he was in little mood to contemplate the state of his relationship with Ryan.

When asked this week if Ryan's antics were all in good fun or kind of annoying, Belichick responded about the way you would expect.

"I'm just focused on getting ready for the Bills," he said. "I'm not really in tune to all of that. I'm sure it's important to you guys, but it's not really anything I spend much time with."

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NEW YORK GIANTS: Manning making most of receiver trio.Eli Manning has three receivers who could break open a game. The quarterback, who is completing 71 percent of his passes this season, had this to say about finding open receivers: "For me, it's about getting everyone involved and going through progressions."

But after Manning targeted the Giants' Big Three -- Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and Victor Cruz -- with 21 of his 38 passes against the Redskins last Sunday, there has been renewed emphasis within the team facility in getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers more often.

Which would seem to make sense.

From NFL Network research: Beckham (280 receiving yards), Shepard (233) and Cruz (195) have combined for 708 receiving yards this season, the most of any wide receiver trio in the NFL. Manning has a 117.2 passer rating when targeting the Big Three and a 69.6 passer rating when targeting anyone else.

In the decisive fourth quarter of Sunday's loss, Manning threw two interceptions -- on passes intended for backup tight end Will Tye and running back Shane Vereen.

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NEW YORK JETS: Fitz on the fritz? If sports-talk radio and Twitter are any indication, Jets fans' patience with Ryan Fitzpatrick might be fraying. Of course, what else would you expect after Fitz threw six -- six! -- interceptions in a loss at Kansas City on Sunday?

(According to NFL Network research, Joe Namath threw six picks in a game three times. The reaction of "Ira from Staten Island" 41 years ago, however, isn't known.)

The Seahawks are visiting MetLife Stadium on Sunday, and Fitzpatrick compared the Seattle defense favorably to the Chiefs' unit: "We have to give them our best in order to move the ball and score points, because they're really good on that side of the ball."

If Fitzpatrick falters early, the home crowd will let him know about it. That said, coach Todd Bowles said he never considered replacing his starter with Geno Smith against the Chiefs.

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