Allen Park — 'Tis the season of the power running game, and as the Lions prepare for their playoff push, Joique Bell is having the best stretch of games by a back this season.
Bell has had 100-plus yards from scrimmage in each of the past three games, all wins, and with games at Chicago and Green Bay to close the season, continued strong performances will be key to clinching a postseason berth.
"I do think that he's got a body type that's certainly built for that in this kind of weather, but good backs, that's what they do," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. "He's tough, he's durable, but the great thing about it is we have a number of different styles to throw out there at you, and I think you're going to see all of them this particular week."
The more agile Reggie Bush and Theo Riddick could have a role Sunday against the Bears, but as offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said Thursday, Bell has "certainly" established himself lately as the go-to option in the Lions backfield.
Bell, though, wouldn't take much credit for his recent success, and even though he's playing well, the Lions still rank 30th in the NFL in rushing, averaging just 83.8 yards per game, thanks to a rough start that included injuries to Bell, Bush and Riddick.
"My O-line is playing really well, man," Bell said. "The O-line is playing well, the coach is calling the run and sticking with it."
In a 34-17 win over the Bears on Thanksgiving, Bell had 23 carries for 91 yards and two touchdowns, both season highs for a Lions running back on the ground this year. He also added two catches for 16 yards.
Against the Buccaneers two weeks ago, Bell had 18 carries for 83 yards, five catches for 50 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also had the Lions' longest run of the year with a 57-yarder. Last week against the Vikings, Bell had 15 carries for 62 yards and four receptions for 41 yards, and he ran four times for 31 yards on the game-winning drive.
"We have a stable. We have a lot of talent. We have a lot of weapons," fullback Jed Collins said. "There's only one ball, and he seems to be the hungriest dog right now and he's playing like it."
Collins first played with Bell on the Saints in 2011. Bell spent the offseason and the first couple weeks of the season, though he was inactive, with New Orleans before being cut and added to the practice squad, off which the Lions signed him later that year.
With Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Chris Ivory and Mark Ingram, the Saints didn't have room for Bell, but he clearly left his mark. Collins remembers Bell having a knee injury in the final preseason game and still finishing with 16 carries for 80 yards and six catches for 44 yards.
Bell never lacked confidence, Collins said, but he's matured as a player and become more of a leader. The long-haired Collins also sees growth elsewhere with Bell.
"His strength seems to be growing with his hair, which I think is something he got from me," Collins said. "I'm pretty proud of that."
All jokes aside, Bell has given the Lions run game a boost recently, and they'll need that to continue the next couple weeks and into the playoffs, if they make it.
"Joique's the type of runner that we can go into these games and establish ourselves," Collins said. "For me as a fullback, it excites me that hopefully we get some power run going. The colder it gets, the more we need that.
"He's the kind of guy who's going to make a play when there's not a play to be made, so that encourages you as a blocker."
Bell's running style gives defensive players a boost, too.
"We get so amped on the sidelines," strong safety James Ihedigbo said. "It looks like every single time he's on that sideline he's going to run somebody over. You better get out of the way or do something. That's what you love to see is someone that is on offense running the ball with a defensive mentality."
Although Bell has had some highlight runs the past few years with the Lions, he's still short of a couple key milestones for NFL running backs. He's never run for 100 yards, but considering the Bears allow 110.3 rushing yards per game and the Packers allow 128, there's a chance he'll hit that mark in the final two weeks. With 726 yards this season, Bell could also reach 1,000 yards if he breaks that 100-yard barrier in either or both of the next two games.
Earlier this season, Bell talked about how he's underrated compared to other running backs across the league, and he's proven that during the second half of the season. But he's still not looking for praise.
"That's the way I like it. Keep me underrated. Keep me under the radar," he said.