Pittsburgh — The football player and friend in Le’Veon Bell understood why LeGarrette Blount walked off the job that cold night in Nashville more than two years ago, jogging to the locker room with the clock still running as Bell and the rest of the Steelers reveled in a critical victory over Tennessee.
For the teammate in Bell, things were a bit more complicated.
Here was a guy who was supposed to have his back instead pouting his way out of town while Bell was in the middle of a breakout season.
“It made me think a little more differently (about him),” Bell said. “But LeGarrette’s doing his thing.”
Blount’s just doing it for the Patriots, not the Steelers, who cut Blount two days after his hasty retreat. Blount was back with New England by the end of the week and three months later earned a Super Bowl ring while Bell (Michigan State) sat at home recovering from a hyperextended left knee injury that forced him to miss Pittsburgh’s playoff loss to Baltimore.
Yet Bell holds no grudges. The two remain in constant contact, though the texting might have slowed this week with the Steelers (13-5) headed to Foxborough to face Blount and the Patriots (15-2) in the AFC championship game.
It wasn’t supposed to work out this way.
The Steelers signed Blount in the spring of 2014 believing the hulking Blount could be the bruising change of pace back they needed to complement the rapidly maturing Bell’s decidedly pragmatic style.
And if Blount happened to become a mentor of sorts along the way, even better.
In August 2014 Bell and Blount were picked up by a police officer after he noticed the scent of marijuana smoke coming from a car Bell was driving, leading to a DUI charge for Bell, a drug charge for Blount and brief suspensions by the NFL for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
The two split carries early that season, but as Bell’s touches went up and Blount’s productivity went down, the future became apparent to both. Blount’s frustrations bubbled over as Bell finished off a 204-yard performance in a Monday night game. By lunchtime on Wednesday, he was released. The sting in the locker room was palpable.
“For him to walk out on his team, yeah it hurt,” right tackle Marcus Gilbert said. “Whenever LeGarette Blount was over here, it was hard for him to fit into the offense because Le’Veon was on such a roll. He wanted more touches. It was just hard.”
Too hard apparently, though for Blount the ends ultimately justified the means.
He helped push the Patriots to a championship shortly after re-signing and ran for an NFL-high 18 touchdowns this season, including two in a 27-16 victory in Pittsburgh in October.
Bell had 149 total yards, 81 receiving and 68 coming on 10 receptions in the loss, a showcase of the versatility few backs in the league can match, Blount included.
“No, I’ve never seen anyone do that — to be as effective as he is,” Blount said. “It’s just something that he does. It’s his style. That’s all I can really say about it. You can’t really describe what he can do.”
Bell, Blount and their teams have moved on professionally. The role of steadying veteran presence the Steelers thought they might be getting with Blount has instead been filled by DeAngelo Williams.
Williams, 33, has fit in seamlessly, showing there’s plenty of life in his legs during the first three weeks of the season while Bell served a second suspension for running afoul of the league’s drug policy, then gracefully stepping aside when Bell returned.
“I think DeAngelo is to the point where he’s like, ‘Man, I just want to win. I don’t want the ball 20 times,’ ” Bell said. “He kind of leans on me, being a younger guy and taking more of the carries and things like that. Because DeAngelo has done just about everything. So I’m obviously trying to be the type of player DeAngelo is.”
Blount wasn’t at that point in his career yet when he arrived in Pittsburgh, though in a twist he’s found himself now splitting carries with a resurgent Dion Lewis. The two have nearly the identical number of carries (59 for Lewis, 58 for Blount) over the last month, though don’t expect Blount to literally exit stage left.
Their bromance stopped being limited to just football long ago. They couldn’t co-exist together in the same uniform. Life, however, is another matter entirely.
“This game doesn’t last as long as any friendship would,” Blount said.
“This game is limited. You never know when it’s over.”
Steelers at Patriots
Kickoff:, 6:40 Sunday, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
Last meeting: Patriots 27, Steelers 16, Oct. 23 in Pittsburgh
Line: Patriots by 6