BALTIMORE -- There's been so much drama brewing around Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell that it's easy to overlook what his team has been doing without him. They've taken decisive control of the lead in the AFC North. They've built an effective running game behind a sturdy offensive line and a formerly unheralded back. Basically, this is no longer a story about what the Steelers are missing. It's primarily a tale about where they're heading.
Pittsburgh left M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday with a well-earned 23-16 win over the Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers also departed with a fairly clearly message sent to the rest of the AFC. They are going to do what they usually do best, which involves banging and bullying opponents as much as possible. The big difference now is that it's running back James Conner doing the dirty work behind a bunch of blockers who are playing at an extremely high level.
Conner finished the game with 163 total yards -- 107 coming on the ground -- and a touchdown. However, the major credit for his success is a group of offensive linemen who owned Baltimore's front seven and once again distanced themselves from the question of what Bell, who has been sitting out all season, could give this team at some point.
Don't blame the Steelers if they are a bit grumpy about this issue. They've been dealing with it all season, and the inquiries got old a long time ago. The players have gone from expecting Bell to return to complaining about him not showing up to simply rolling their eyes when the topic comes around every week. All they really know is that Bell has to return to the team and sign his franchise tender by Nov. 13 if he actually wants to play this season.
The Steelers, now 5-2-1, also realize that they are more than capable of thriving without him. Conner has gained at least 100 rushing yards in each of his last four games, all of which Pittsburgh has won. He's had 88 rushing attempts during that span and 20 receptions, as well. If this was the kind of workload Bell was looking to avoid -- as he reportedly is sitting out in order to preserve his body for his next team -- then Conner has been more than willing to do what he can with that glut of opportunities.
The end result is that Pittsburgh has gone from being a team that was a hot mess during a 1-2-1 start to one that is looking increasingly more dangerous. Even though the final score was close, the Steelers controlled Sunday's game with impressive efficiency.
"We wanted to get rolling early," said Conner, who had just 32 carries as a rookie in 2017. "We wanted to start fast and make some plays. This team is playing with a lot of confidence right now."
"I don't want to take anything away from James, but the big boys up front are opening holes," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "It's a collective effort. James is going above and beyond. I'm more pleased by what he's doing in the passing game (Conner had seven receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown against Baltimore) and as far as blitz pickup. That's a little more unique than the rushing. We knew he could run the ball ever since he showed up at Pitt (Conner played at the University of Pittsburgh) at 18 or 19."
The Steelers' offense was actually at its best at the start of the second half. After beginning that drive on their own 25-yard line, they ran 15 plays over the course of eight minutes and 14 seconds and finished the possession with a one-yard touchdown run by Ben Roethlisberger that made the score 20-6. Conner touched the ball seven times on that drive, including a 10-yard catch right before Roethlisberger's score. It was the kind of work the Steelers had been accustomed to seeing Bell do in the past.
It's difficult to know what the Steelers' offense will look like if Bell returns, but this much is true: Conner deserves to keep doing what he's done. The bigger question Tomlin has to ponder is how his team will react to Bell once he's back. Bell has made it clear that his absence had everything to do with his desire to avoid hurting his chances at a substantial contract down the road. Even though he's been with the Steelers since entering the league as a second-round pick in 2013, he'll have to convince his teammates that he's done making business decisions with his body for the foreseeable future.
There's no doubt the Steelers will be more dangerous if Bell is committed. He's played in three Pro Bowls, earned first-team All-Pro honors twice and is arguably the most versatile running back in the NFL. Combine him with Conner, and Pittsburgh would have even more ways to attack opposing defenses. As Roethlisberger said, "This is no disrespect to other teams -- but they don't stop us. We stop ourselves."
There was a time, not that long ago, when the Steelers weren't talking so boldly. Along with Bell's absence, they were dealing with early-season frustration from Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown and a defense that had become uncharacteristically shoddy. It says plenty that the Steelers fought their way out of the hole they dug for themselves back in September. It says even more that they did it by getting back to basics.
As impressive as Pittsburgh can look when Roethlisberger is flinging the ball all over the place -- and Brown is embarrassing opposing defensive backs -- this is still a team that is most comfortable when it is pushing others around on a regular basis. That's what the Steelers have been doing lately.
"People are always so quick to jump on your case whenever things don't go right immediately," center Maurkice Pouncey said. "This team has always been one to just go to work and block out the outside noise. That's what we did. We know we had a sorry start, but we're trying to correct it now."
So far, so good on that front. The Steelers are back to being the Steelers, and they've got plenty to like about their running game. There may be more help coming in that department in the near future, but that's a story for another day. Right now, the Steelers know how far they've come and, more importantly, that they're far more prepared to tackle whatever lies ahead.