PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger has a request for Le’Veon Bell: hit me up.
The Pittsburgh quarterback expects to make his only preseason appearance on Saturday night when the Steelers host Indianapolis, but his bigger concern is when Bell is ready to show up to work.
The All-Pro running back has yet to sign his franchise tender, though he hinted on Twitter late Tuesday night that he would arrive on Sept. 1, the day after Pittsburgh plays its preseason finale against Carolina. Bell added a winking emoji just in case. And while Roethlisberger understands business is business, he admits it’s a little curious Bell hasn’t reached out during his training camp sabbatical. Roethlisberger sent a couple of missives earlier in camp Bell has yet to return.
“I mean I’d love to hear back from him, just a text, ‘Hey how you doing,'” Roethlisberger said Wednesday. “But it is what it is.”
Meaning it will be rookie James Conner, free agent pickup Knile Davis or backup Fitzgerald Toussaint in the backfield with Roethlisberger on Saturday night. Conner made an auspicious pro debut last weekend, running for 99 yards in a win over the Falcons. Still, Conner isn’t Bell. No back in the league is.
While Roethlisberger isn’t too concerned about Bell getting up to speed whenever he arrives, each day that goes by is a missed opportunity. Roethlisberger added he hasn’t tried to sneak Bell the team’s updated playbook and isn’t sure if anyone else has, meaning Bell will have to do a bit of cramming before the season starts for real Sept. 10 in Cleveland.
“That’s on him and how much studying he wants to do,” Roethlisberger said. “We’ll do everything we can to get him up to speed and then the rest is kind of on him.”
Bell averaged over 150 yards of total offense in 12 games last season, helping the franchise to a third straight playoff berth and its second AFC North title in three years. A groin issue hampered him in the AFC championship game against New England. Bell underwent surgery to repair the problem in the spring, but hasn’t been in the locker room with his teammates since January. There are no concerns about a rift developing, but Roethlisberger thinks going from working out on your own in Miami to getting hit by NFL players will take an adjustment after eight months away.
“He is a physical back and it’s a violent sport; the running back position takes a beating, so you just have to hope that the other guys are ready to go,” Roethlisberger said. “I don’t know. I’m not him. If he just comes back I don’t know if he’ll be ready to play every single play like he does typically during the season. So we are going to have some other guys to give him breaks.”
The Steelers are making at least one off-the-field tweak this fall. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley will move to the coach’s box instead of standing on the sideline as he’s done during each of his five seasons with the team. Quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner will move down to the field, with Haley replacing Fichtner upstairs.
“I think it takes distractions away from the play caller, but we’ll see,” Roethlisberger said. “Everyone has got to be comfortable with it.”
Roethlisberger expects to play a series or two Saturday night. The Steelers used a similar strategy last summer when Roethlisberger played for a handful of series against New Orleans. It hardly proved an issue going into the regular season: Pittsburgh put up 38 points during an opening week romp over Washington.
Bell didn’t play that night as he sat out three games as part of a drug suspension. He missed the 2015 opener, too, because of another drug infraction. Heading into the most important year of his promising career, Bell should be ready to go by Sept. 10. The sooner his No. 26 is in the huddle, the better.
“He’s an amazing football player and he helps this team,” Roethlisberger said, “so we’ll be excited when he gets here. Hopefully it does not take him long to get into football shape.”
NOTES: The Steelers are giving former Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas a tryout at wide receiver. Pittsburgh signed Thomas on Wednesday. Thomas threw for 4,754 yards and 40 touchdowns during his collegiate career, adding another 2,412 yards rushing. The Rams cut Thomas earlier this month. To make room for Thomas on the roster, the Steelers cut cornerback Greg Ducre, who was hurt against Atlanta.