You are going to hear it throughout the summer. Le’Veon Bell is going to sit out during training camp. Fantasy prognosticators, Steelers fans, and media all around will tell you that he came back last year and was rusty, so you have to beware of Le’Veon Bell to start the 2018 season.
The question becomes how much merit is to that narrative? Yes, it is true that Le’Veon Bell in the first two weeks of his 2017 season, he had 37 attempts for 119 yards, a 3.2 yards per carry clip. From there, he averaged 4.1 the rest of the year. So yes, statistically he slumped to start his season.
However, when given context, it may not have been rust as much as the breaks of the schedule. The Pittsburgh Steelers just so happened to face the Cleveland Browns and the Minnesota Vikings to get back into the swing of things. We all know the Minnesota Vikings. They ranked second overall in DVOA and ranked sixth overall against the run. The Steelers led 14-3 at the half against the stout defense and ran out the clock with predictable running. Bell finished with 27 carries for 87 yards against the elite front.
Teams are not going to look at the Cleveland Browns as a juggernaut defensive team, but one thing they did well last season was defend the run. In fact, despite a historically bad pass defense, the Browns ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing defense.
Add in that Le’Veon Bell only got 10 carries and it is fair to question whether this was rust or lack of usage. There were questions about potential punishments for Bell for missing training camp, and former teammate DeAngelo Williams later speculated that the first game was clearly a punishment package.
So at the end of the day, Bell did not get chances in Week One and faced a tough run defense with stacked boxes in Week Two.
Fortunately for us (unfortunately for Le’Veon Bell), this will not be the first time in which Bell is coming into the season having an extended break just prior.
While the two situations came off season-ending injuries, both starts to his 2015 and 2016 were delayed due to suspensions. So, while he was able to participate in camp and the preseason for part of these years, there also is an element of rust that needed to be shaken off in his first two games.
In 2015, he opened against the Rams and their number seven ranked rush defense at the time. Bell was held in check to 19 carries for 62 yards. Bell also caught 7 passes for 70 yards. The very next week he exploded onto the Baltimore Ravens and their 12th ranked rush defense for 129 yards on 22 carries. That gives him a two-week return of 41 carries for 191 yards. A whopping 4.7 yards per carry. No rust to be found in 2015.
In 2016, it was a three-game suspension. Bell once again was coming off of an injury and this year hardly played in the preseason. Still, that did not stop him from getting revved up and jumping right into the starting lineup.
In his first game back, he took on the 25th ranked run defense in the Kansas City Chiefs. Bell showed no rust as he darted for 144 yards on 18 carries. Bell took on the top run defense in the league the next week and did come back down to life, with 20 carries for 66 yards. That gives Bell 38 carries for 210 yards, 5.5 yards per carry.
2015: 41 carries, 191 yards
2016: 38 carries, 210 yards
2017: 37 carries, 119 yards
So in three situations where “rust” should have been a factor, it only played out in one season. It seems as though the greatest correlation here is he does better against worse defenses. Common sense. Of the six games, when he has not faced a top ten run defense, he has 273 yards on 40 carries, a ridiculous 6.8 yards per carry.
So will there be rust for Le’Veon Bell when he enters the season fresh off of a likely holdout? The answer probably depends on who he is playing and how often he gets the football. As for Bell, you should be expecting a similar version of the same player.