Pittsburgh — Another time, another life and maybe Le'Veon Bell wouldn't be a running back.
Truth is, the budding Pittsburgh Steelers star grew up wanting to be Randy Moss. Genetics did him in. Rather than long and lithe, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Bell is long and layered, his hopes of sprinting through the secondary on his way to an elaborate touchdown dance dashed by thighs that double as cinder blocks.
It's a tradeoff the former Michigan State standout can live with. Besides, considering how the Steelers (4-3) use the engine of the NFL's eighth-ranked offense, Bell is getting his fix at receiver anyway.
"I'm open to everything," Bell said.
So, apparently, is offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
As Pittsburgh's uneven 2014 reaches the midway point, Bell has been one of the constants. He is on pace to break Barry Foster's club record for total yards by a running back in one season. Foster had 2,034 yards in 1992, just a few months after Bell was born. Bell is already at 938 yards (599 rushing, 339 receiving) through seven games.
Where Foster was a diesel truck, Bell is a sports car. He dropped a dozen pounds over the summer and concentrated on his footwork, ditching the mincing steps that marked his productive if not explosive rookie year for a more decisive style designed to get yards in chunks.
It's why he's averaging a healthy 5.1 yards per carry, including an 81-yard strike against Carolina that marked the franchise's longest run from scrimmage since 1970.
"I'm more comfortable now," Bell said. "The game is coming more naturally. I can see everything happen and just go. I can set up my blocks better."
Bell earned praise from his teammates for his patience as a rookie, when he would gently put a hand on an offensive lineman's back and follow him toward the hole. This year Bell isn't waiting so long for the play to develop. He's become a better judge on when to wait and when to wallop. He's particularly effective running out of the shotgun, where his nimble feet and vision can slither through the narrowest creases with ease.
It's why he's not concerned about a heavy workload even as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger cautions the Steelers don't "want to run him until the wheels fall off."
If anything, Pittsburgh is taking it easy on him. Bell is on pace for about 350 touches, or around 22 a game. That's a marked downturn from his days at Michigan State. During his senior year with the Spartans in 2012, Bell handled the ball 414 times in 13 games, an average of 31 each Saturday.
Maybe that's why Bell says he's hardly concerned about getting worn down.
"My legs feel great," he said. "I don't take too many direct hits. Me losing that weight, I feel like I'm quicker."
He's certainly more dangerous. While he caught 45 passes during his rookie season, most of them were screen or dump offs. Not this year. The Steelers split Bell out wide when they go to the no-huddle. He pulled in a tough 5-yard third-down grab in Monday night's 30-23 win over Houston after lining up in the slot.
Bell later added a 43-yard catch-and-run in the second quarter that set up the first of Pittsburgh's three touchdowns in a 73-second span. He finished with eight receptions for 88 yards on a night he had 145 yards of total offense, the seventh straight game he's gone over 100 yards.
At the rate Bell is going, he should smash John L. Williams' club mark for catches in one season by a running back. Williams grabbed 51 passes in 1994. Bell may top that number before Halloween. And Roethlisberger believes the Steelers haven't come close to helping Bell reach his potential.
"We haven't even used him," Roethlisberger said. "We've been in the no-huddle 25 percent of the time this year, and we use him a lot in the no-huddle. So, I don't even think we've tapped into what we can do with him yet."
Work remains to be done, however, both on the field and off.
Bell and fellow Steelers running back LeGarrette Blount, were arrested Aug. 20 after a motorcycle officer in Ross Township, outside Pittsburgh, smelled marijuana coming from a vehicle the men were in with a female friend. Bell hopes to enter a first-offender's program that could result in the charges being dismissed and his record expunged. He apologized to his teammates for the misstep and will likely face a two-game suspension from the NFL next year after the case is adjudicated.
The embarrassment has provided a valuable teaching moment for a player whose career remains very much on the rise no matter where he's at when the ball is snapped.
"I still think the best is yet to come from him," Roethlisberger said.