New Orleans was where Bell knew he’d made it in NFL

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Allen Park — In 2011, the New Orleans Saints had a star-studded cast of running backs.

Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles were dynamic options in both the run and pass games. Chris Ivory established himself in 2010 with 716 rushing yards as an undrafted rookie, and Mark Ingram was a first-round pick.

Still, a fifth tailback managed to make the team out of training camp — Joique Bell.

Joique Bell never carried the ball with the Saints, but the team saw his talent and kept him as a fifth RB.

Now in his fourth full season with the Lions, Bell had opportunities with several teams as a rookie, but in 2011, he spent most of the year in New Orleans, initially on the roster before reverting back to the practice squad. And even though he never played in a game for the Saints, Bell fondly remembers coach Sean Payton telling him he’d made the roster.

“After I made the team,” Bell said, “he brought me into his office and told me they didn’t plan on keeping five running backs, but I played so well in the preseason, I made them keep me.”

Bell and the Lions (4-9) visit New Orleans (5-8) Monday for a prime time matchup at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

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The 2011 Saints were actually the second-best backfield Bell was a part of, he said. As an undrafted rookie in 2010, he spent his first training camp with the Buffalo Bills and worked with Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.

After starting the season on Buffalo’s practice squad, Bell then joined Philadelphia’s practice squad and eventually played three games for the Eagles, all on special teams. Lions defensive end Darryl Tapp was with the Eagles that year and remembered Bell as a hard-nosed guy who was trying to make a better life for himself and his son.

After that, it was on to Indianapolis, where Bell appeared in five games on special teams before he joined the Saints in advance of the postseason.

Then, in 2011, the NFL had a lockout, but Bell worked out in New Orleans and later made the team out of training camp after gaining 182 rushing yards and 139 receiving yards in the preseason.

“He was a guy that kind of could do it all,” said Lions receiver Lance Moore, who played for the Saints at the time. “He wanted to catch punts, he wanted to do kickoff returns and I think he understood that it was going to take him a little bit extra to make that team.”

Moore said Bell did everything the coaches asked of him and more, staying after practice to work as a kickoff and punt returner.

Although Bell made the roster initially, the Saints put him on the practice squad a few weeks into the season. Then, in December 2011, the Lions signed him.

And in 2012, Bell earned his first chance to play offense after making the Detroit roster, and his opportunities increased each of the next three years, including a 2013 season in which he and Reggie Bush became the first tandem to have 500 rushing and receiving yards each.

Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin coached against Bell in 2013 when he was an assistant with the Ravens, and when he recalled that preparation Friday, he described Bell as a “quality back.”

“We knew we had to take care of him,” Austin said.

Bell has struggled a bit this year, averaging just 3.0 yards per carry, but he played well last Sunday with 50 yards on seven carries and two catches for 25 yards. It’s unclear how much he’ll play against the Saints with Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick also being involved.

And even though Bell had appeared in NFL games before going to New Orleans, making that loaded team helped boost his confidence.

“It felt good just letting me know that I had what it took to play in this league,” he said. “I just took it for what it was and just kept working.”

Lions at Saints

Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. Monday, Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

TV/radio: ESPN/97.1

Line: Saints by 3

Records: Lions 4-9; Saints 5-8

Series: Saints lead 11-10-1