Ex-Spartan Le'Veon Bell an artist at finding holes

Lynn Henning

Allen Park — Spend enough years coaching football and a man hasn’t quite seen it all. But surprises are few. And so are player exploits that can be branded as truly unique.

Jim Caldwell stood at a lectern Wednesday at Lions headquarters and sounded like an astronomer who had just discovered something astounding.

He was speaking of Steelers running back and one-time Michigan State star Le’Veon Bell.

“It’s difficult to,” and here Caldwell, the Lions head coach, paused as he scrolled through his mental files. “I’ve been trying to see if I could remember someone that has a running style like his — and I cannot.

“I cannot place a guy that has the ability he has. He’s very patient with his vision, and he can start and stop and then hit it into third and fourth gear in a hurry.

“He’s an unusual guy, really. I mean just pretty special.”

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As those who watched him in East Lansing will recall, Bell doesn’t run to, or past, blocks as much as he appraises them. His knack for waiting as creases form and allow him a few square inches of space was clear even in his Spartans days.

But this prowess has been taken to a level of artistry at Pittsburgh.

Bell has 168 carries this season, most of any NFL back. He has 684 yards, second to the 717 rolled up by Chiefs maestro Kareem Hunt. Toss in the 214 receiving yards from a man who catches the ball about as well as he totes it and Bell is one reason apart from receiver extraordinaire Antonio Brown why the Steelers are a three-point favorite to tip the Lions in Sunday night’s game at Ford Field.

It’s his deliberation after taking a handoff from Ben Roethlisberger that makes even Caldwell sigh. Bell is like a picky shopper checking price tags and brand labels.

He spends more time behind the line of scrimmage (3.16 seconds) than any runner this side of Bears playmaker Tarik Cohen (3.4). Spice his patience with a gift for making tacklers miss (he has 30, second only to Hunt) and one appreciates why Bell is averaging 33-plus carries per game.

“I just think as I got older and more experienced playing football, I just got more confident in my ability,” Bell said during a Wednesday morning conference call. “I feel like I’ve always been a patient runner. I just think that I’m older and I understand the game a little better, I understand blocking schemes better.

“I trust my teammates a little more. It just comes with experience and a lot of practice.”

And, it might be added, skill that’s as personal to Bell as his DNA. He first showed that quick-shift transmission, nationally anyway, after the Spartans pulled him out of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, where he was no more than a three-star recruit at Groveport Madison High.

What he had even as a freshman was a smoothness in acceleration and judgment. It seemed he could go zero-to-60 in a single step.

Defenders found him a bear to square up.

With the Steelers, he simply has added luster and NFL mettle to his skill set. That includes an even sharper sense for minimizing tackles that might leave other runners totaled.

It was his confidence there that seemed to have spurred July’s decision to wave off a five-year deal that reportedly would have netted him $30 million in the first two seasons.

How much of that money would have been paid in the first year, and how much would be guaranteed, have never publicly been revealed. Bell instead chose to absorb a franchise tag and $12.12 million this season.

He hopes to do better in 2018 — something closer to a longer deal in the vicinity of $15 million annually. Something on the level Adrian Peterson pulled (seven years, $96 million) as the NFL’s all-time, best-paid, back.

Not surprisingly, dollars were not a subject Bell cared to discuss in detail Wednesday.

“I’m going to go to practice today,” he said, answering a question as methodically as he carries a football. “I’m going to play this Sunday. I’m going to go out there and try and get a ‘W’ and try to continue that throughout the rest of the season.

“And when the offseason comes,” Bell said, shedding yet another pursuer, “that’ll handle itself.”