Bell's exit from Steelers likely, suspension or not

Ray Fittipaldo
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

There was a chance the Steelers were playing with Le’Veon Bell as their running back for one more season anyway.

The former All-Pro is in a contract year, and there was no guarantee the Steelers would be able to agree with him on a long-term deal or use their franchise tag on him.

The news Friday that the former Michigan State standout is facing a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy pretty much seals the deal Bell is playing his final season with the Steelers — it would cost them around $11 million in guaranteed money to have him on the roster next season.

ESPN reported Bell is facing the suspension for a missed drug test. Steelers and NFL officials did not have a comment because Bell’s case is under appeal.

Under the league’s substance abuse policy, a missed drug test is a failed drug test. Bell’s four-game suspension means he failed or missed four drug tests.

Under the policy passed in September 2014, a player’s first positive test for marijuana draws no suspension but it puts him into the NFL substance abuse program, which allows for random testing year-round. A second offense results in a two-game fine and a third results in a four-game fine — but no suspension from play on either. A suspension now does not occur unless a player fails a test for marijuana four times.

In the short term, the reality is Bell should only miss four games. The Steelers might not have Bell in their long-term plans, but it won’t prevent them from using him when he returns.

Coach Mike Tomlin once said he was going to run Willie Parker until “the wheels came off.” Tomlin could run Bell’s wheels down to the rims and no one in the front office would blink an eye.

When healthy the past three seasons, Bell established himself as one of the top running backs in the league. In 35 career games, he rushed for 2,777 yards and 19 touchdowns. He’s also a big part of the passing game with 152 receptions for 1,389 yards.

Bell’s absence will hurt the Steelers, especially when it comes to their goal of earning a top playoff seed in the AFC, but they did go 7-3 without Bell last season. The reason for the stellar record was DeAngelo Williams, the veteran who rushed for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns.

It was Williams’ best season since rushing for 1,117 yards in 2009. Williams, 33, is entering the final season of a two-year contract he signed with the Steelers in the spring of 2015.

In addition to his running skills, Williams proved to be a strong pass blocker and an effective receiver out of the backfield. He caught 40 passes for 367 yards.

Williams played in all 16 regular-season games last season, but he was injured in the finale against the Browns and did not dress for either of the two playoff games.

Despite losing their top two backs, the Steelers’ running game remained effective in the 18-16 AFC wild-card victory over the Bengals, rushing for 167 yards. It wasn’t until the 23-16 loss to the Broncos the following week in an AFC Divisional game the running game stalled. The Steelers rushed for 85 yards.

Former Michigan standout Fitz Toussaint, whose fourth-quarter fumble against the Broncos likely cost the Steelers a spot in the AFC Championship game, will enter training camp as Williams’ backup.

Toussaint rushed for 42 yards on 18 carries during the regular season and 97 yards and a touchdown on 29 postseason carries.

The Steelers also have former Rams running back Daryl Richardson, plus Cameron Stingily, Brandon Brown-Dukes and Brandon Johnson on their training camp roster. Richardson is the only one with NFL regular-season experience. He rushed for 690 yards (4.1 yards per carry) in two seasons with the Rams in 2012 and 2013.