KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Prevailing wisdom says the easiest way to hold a star running back in check in the NFL is to simply keep him from getting started.
That doesn’t really work against Le’Veon Bell.
He willingly stops. Or at least hesitates. Then, when his patience has allowed the Pittsburgh offensive line to pry open the slightest of creases, the fourth-year running back has an uncanny ability to slip through it from a near-standstill, befuddling just about every defense trying to stop him.
“He has a unique style about him, that delay to get to the line of scrimmage,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “It’s been effective for him. He’s really the only one that does it, so it’s unique.
“The obvious thing is you have to contain him and take care of your gaps, for sure.”
That’s something the Chiefs, who are preparing to face Bell and the Steelers in the divisional round on Sunday, struggled to do when the teams met in Pittsburgh in early October. In his first game back from a three-game suspension, Bell gashed the Chiefs for 144 yards on just 18 careers. And to add insult to embarrassment, he also caught five passes for 34 yards, an effort that went widely under-the-radar only because Ben Roethlisberger was busy throwing five TD passes.
It was only a precursor of bigger things.
As the Steelers were putting together a seven-game winning streak to finish the season and head into the playoffs, Bell was putting together one of the best stretches in NFL history. He ran for 835 yards over a six-week period before sitting out Week 17, and then rolled up 167 yards rushing and two touchdowns in last weekend’s wild-card romp over the Miami Dolphins.
Much of that success was due to his unique running style, one that caused CBS analyst Phil Simms to dub him “The Great Hesitator” — and one that runs counter to conventional wisdom.
Take the handoff. Hit the hole hard. Run to daylight.
That’s the simple progression coaches from Pop Warner to high school to college have taught running backs for years. The idea is to minimize idle time in the backfield, pressure defensive fronts to react quickly to where a play is developing, and take away any chance of a tackle for loss.
But the style Bell has adopted is more like this: stop, consider the options, pick one. Then go.
“It’s different,” said Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who will be called upon to help stop Bell on Sunday. “A lot of people focus on coaching technique, but it’s a little easier to diagnose technique and figure out what it is. When you have a unique style, along with technique, it’s a little difficult.”
It is particularly difficult for the defensive linemen.
Once upon a time their job in run defense was to penetrate the backfield and make a play. These days they are coached to hold the line — remain what coaches call “gap sound.” The reasoning behind that is it clogs up the middle, cuts down on running lanes and makes it harder to pop a big play.
But with Bell’s patience, holding the line becomes a much more difficult task. Things are bound to break down sooner or later, and that’s when Bell darts upfield to do his damage.
“In your own brain,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said, “you’re saying, ‘If he’s not hitting that thing downhill, we ought to be able to get him on the ground quick.’ But he accelerates very well, he has great strength and body balance. You lose track of some of those things.”
Making things even more challenging? Kansas City has a hard time stopping the ground game.
The Chiefs allowed more than 121 yards rushing per game in the regular season to rank 26th. In a game against lowly Jacksonville, they allowed more than 200 yards.
No disrespect to T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory, but neither of them has Bell’s unique talents.
Then there’s the fact that injuries have robbed the Chiefs of some of their best run defenders. Top tackler Derrick Johnson ruptured his Achilles tendon and is out for the season, and fellow linebacker Josh Mauga and defensive linemen Jaye Howard and Allen Bailey are also on injured reserve.
“This is going to be an all-day job,” Sutton said. “We’re going to have to be really disciplined up front. When you play really, really good players, you need everybody every play.”