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Why the Steelers Can Beat the Ravens Without Le'Veon Bell

Published by Bleacher Report on Wed, 31 Dec 2014

A collective silence fell upon Heinz Field as the MVP of the Pittsburgh Steelers fell to the ground in pain. With so much promise heading into the playoffs, the potential loss of LeVeon Bell was a devastating thought.Bell suffered a right knee injury after a low hit from Cincinnati Bengals safety Reggie Nelson, and the immediate belief was that the team MVP would be done for the season. However, the MRI results showed that there was no damage to his ligaments, per Scott Brown of ESPN.com.Even so, Bells status for Saturdays playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens is in doubt.In his weekly press conference, Mike Tomlin said that while Bell is experiencing pain, he was able to work out on an exercise bike, but the team would take it day-by-day. He also added that the team would do what is right, even though it is a win-or-go-home scenario on Saturday, via Steelers.com:Just rest assured, were going to make the right decision. We wont be swayed by circumstancethe magnitude of the game and so forth. If hes healthy and able to protect himself and can be a positive contributor to our efforts, well play him. If we cant answer yes to all of those questions and then some, we wont. Its just that simple, and well proceed with no excuses. We feel confident that we can field the type of team capable of winning this game, but also any game, if given legitimate time to prepare. And we have legitimate time to prepare.The lack of Bells presence in the lineup would be a lot to overcome. He accounted for 35.4 percent of the total offensive yards with 2,215 and had 11 of the 43 touchdowns scored by the Steelers. It is virtually impossible to replace that type of production if he is unable to play and will make it that much tougher for the Steelers to defeat the Ravens on Saturday.But tough does not mean impossible. Even without their MVP, the Steelers have plenty of reasons to be confident heading into the playoffs, and it starts by examining the top two seeds in the AFC.Teams Can Win Without No. 1 Running BackNot only can teams win without an elite running back, but they can finish at the top of the conference. Just look at the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos.While neither team can boast having a running back at the same level of Bell, neither has had its top running back from the start of the season. Instead, both have used a number of backs to produce a nearly identical number of rushing yards as the Steelers.Bell accounted for nearly 78 percent of the 1,752 rushing yards by Pittsburgh this year. By comparison, Denvers leading rusher had 47.6 of its total rushing yards, while New England had four running backs contribute to its 1,727 yards on the ground.Both teams were able to unearth inexperienced talent to help replace their injured starters. For New England, Jonas Gray had 412 yards and averaged 4.6 yards per carry. Denver used a number of running backs, including C.J. Anderson, who rushed for 849 yards with an average of 4.7 yards per carry.That is not to say that the Steelers will follow suit and have a diamond in the rough on their depth chart, but it is possible that one of their backups can step in and contribute enough to earn a win.The trio of Josh Harris, Dri Archer and the newly signed Ben Tate, as the team announced on its website, has only combined for 59 yards on 19 carries, which does not inspire much confidence. However, there is potential for any one of the players to have a breakout game.Archer is a threat to break a big play each time he touches the ball but has not shown the ability to run between the tackles. Tate has 2,363 rushing yards in his career, including 371 this season, but will be limited since he just signed with the team on Tuesday.That leaves Harriswho broke open a 59-yard run before a holding penalty negated itto take hold of the top spot. Tomlin has confidence in the 511, 210-pound rookie to take over for Bell if needed. That doesnt mean he will have to touch the ball 20 to 25 times, but rather keep the ball moving forward and not make any mistakes.It is a lot to ask any of these backs to replace what Bell doesactually, it is impossible. Tomlin knows this and said as much in his press conference, via Bob Labriola of Steelers.com:LeVeon contributes in a lot of ways, and when youre talking about replacing an impact guy like him its not always a one-man job. Its a multiple-man job, and it might be a multiple-man job cross-positionally. It may mean we dont play with a back on third down. It may mean we play with an additional wideout. Or an additional tight end. Were going to turn over all the stones to make sure were prepared to replace his significance. It may not just be running back jersey for running back jersey. Theres more depth to it than that.Tomlin wont ask his backs to go out and dominate the game. They dont need to. He just needs them to go out and do their job to the best of their ability. Who knows' Maybe the Steelers will find they have a quality backup just as the Patriots and Broncos did.Passing Game Can Carry the TeamThere is no denying that Bell is the Steelers' most versatile weapon, but he is not their only weapon. In fact, he may not even be their best weapon.Antonio Brown is as dangerous as it gets on the outside. He not only led the NFL in receptions and yards, but he also was tied for second in touchdowns. Of course, having quarterback Ben Roethlisbergerwho is coming off the best statistical season of his careerthrowing to him does not hurt.We havent even mentioned the X-factorMartavis Bryantwho averages a touchdown every 3.25 receptions.Add in Heath Miller and Markus Wheaton, and the Steelers have more than enough firepower to defeat the Ravens. Beyond the players, the Steelers have proved that they can beat Baltimore without Bell producing.Bell had strong rushing performances through his first three games against the Ravens, but that was not the case in their meeting back in November. Baltimore held him to 58 yards on 15 touches, including 10 carries for only 20 yards.As highlighted by Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (subscription required), the Steelers will miss Bell in the passing game. He had 83 receptions on the season, including 10 against the Ravens. He was particularly effective in situations when Roethlisberger is under pressure and needs to dump the ball off.However, Roethlisberger and the offense proved they could move the ballwith relative easeagainst Baltimore even when Bell is not heavily involved.In their 43-23 win over the Ravens, Roethlisberger threw for 340 yards and six touchdowns. He was able to have so much success due to the presence of Brown and the emergence of Bryant.Brown had 11 receptions for 144 yards and a touchdown and has a total of 23 receptions and 234 yards against the Ravens this year. But the real story was Bryant, who was able to make two touchdown receptions for the second consecutive week and solidify himself as a dangerous receiving threat.Outside of the lack of a rushing attack against the Ravens, Bell only gained 130 yards on the ground over the past three weeks. All three were must-win games, and the Steelers won all of them. Though their scoring decreased, they proved that the passing game could carry the offense when the ground attack was not working.Defense Ready to Step UpOn the surface, the defense is the last unit that the Steelers want to rely on when it comes to winning a playoff game.Each week, no matter who the quarterback is he always seems to look like an All-Pro against this defense. It is no surprise that it ranked 27th against the pass with 253.1 yards allowed per game and 28th with 30 passing touchdowns against.The pass defense has slipped in recent weeks, but that has coincided with an improved rush defense and the overall performance of the defense in general.After allowing an average of 24.83 points per game over the first 12 games, the defense has clamped down in recent weeks. During the Steelers' four-game winning streak, their defense has allowed just 17.5 points per game.With over a touchdown-per-game improvement, the bend-but-dont-break defense is in full effect. It was particularly strong over the past two weeks when the Steelers did not allow the Kansas City Chiefs to score a touchdown and limited the Cincinnati Bengals to just two touchdowns.The defensive improvement has been threefold, with the Steelers limiting their opponents on the ground while improving their pass rush and play in the secondary.The emergence of Stephon Tuitt on the defensive line combined with the outstanding play of Cameron Heyward has helped with the defensive front. It is able to contain the ground game as well as generate pressure on the quarterback.This effort has shown in recent weeks, as the Steelers have 11 sacks and have forced seven turnoversincluding three in the season finaleduring the month of December. Roethlisberger took special note of the defensive effort against the Bengals, via Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:The defense played huge all day, Roethlisberger said. We didnt do enough offensively, we didnt make enough plays and our defense bailed us out. It was fun to watch our defense play at a very high level and get turnovers.Turnovers will be tough to come by on Saturday. Baltimore has only turned the ball over 17 times all season. Part of the reason is that the offensive line has done an outstanding job protecting Joe Flacco, allowing just 19 sacks this season.Even as well as they have performed, the Ravens have struggled in recent weeks. Besides losing to the Houston Texans two weeks ago, they have had tight wins against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns.Since December began, the Ravens have only scored 20.25 points per game, over five points per game below their season average. Combined with the Steelers defense playing well, it could be another week of problems scoring points for Flacco and the Ravens.While the defense is not the unit that has to worry about replacing Bell, it is a part of the multiple-man job Tomlin talked about. The defense is playing as well as it has all season and will look to carry this momentum into the first round of the playoffs.It would only be appropriate in this classic rematch between hated rivals for the Steelers to have a vintage performance by their defense to win the game.Note: Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy ofESPN.com,and all roster information is courtesy ofSteelers.com.Follow @ChrisG_BR
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