Le’Veon Bell joined an elite group on Sunday, one that includes only three other running backs in NFL history, and he has a chance this weekend to do something no running back has ever done.
Bell rushed for a team-record 170 yards on Sunday, the 18th best rushing game in NFL playoff history. His 167 yards against the Dolphins a week earlier ranks tied for 21st all time, while his 337 combined playoff yards this postseason rank 12th all-time for a player in a single playoff year.
Bell is just seven yards from passing Franco Harris’ team record of 343 yards set in the 1974 playoffs, and he’s 112 yards from cracking the top five single-season playoff performances in the history of the NFL.
With his record-setting performance on Sunday, Bell joined Terrell Davis, John Riggins, and Marcus Allen as the only players in NFL history to rush for 150-plus yards twice in the same playoff season.
It’s never happened three times.
Davis actually accomplished the feat twice. In the 1998 AFC playoffs, he rushed for 199 yards for Denver in a Divisional round win over Miami, then backed that up with 167 yards against the Jets in the AFC title game. The year prior, Davis ran for 184 yards in a Wild Card win over Jacksonville, then three games later rattled off 157 yards in the Super Bowl against Green Bay.
Denver won the Super Bowl both years, with Davis amassing 581 yards on 112 carries (5.2 yards per carry) in the ’97 playoffs and a ridiculous 468 yards on just 78 carries (6.0 yards per carry) in the ’98 playoffs.
Bell is averaging more this season than Davis did in either ’97 (145 yards per game) or ’98 (156 yards per game). He’s also averaging more than Riggins did in the 1982 playoffs, when the Washington power back rush for an NFL-record 610 yards in four playoff games. Riggins, who carried the ball 136 times in the ’82 postseason, averaged 152.2 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry, en route to a Washington Super Bowl.
Steelers fans may not want to remember Allen’s run in the 1983 playoffs. He rushed for 121 yards and two scores on just 13 carries against Pittsburgh in the Divisional round that year, then carried the Raiders — literally — in a win over Seattle in the AFC title game with 154 yards on 25 carries, before an MVP-caliber 191 yards and two scores on 20 carries in their Super Bowl win over Washington. All told, Allen rushed for 466 yards in the ’83 postseason, but on just 58 carries, an 8.1 yards per carry rate.
Bell has his 337 yards on 59 carries this season, an average of 5.7 per rush. He’s also faced two comparatively poor rushing defenses so far in the playoffs. The Dolphins allowed a league-worst 4.8 yards per carry this season, while the Chiefs let up 4.4 yards per carry, tied for 20th in the NFL. Miami’s 2,247 yards allowed on 464 rushes were 30th in the league — 140.4 yards per game — while the Chiefs faced 437 regular-season rushes and gave up 1,938 yards — 121.1 ypg — the 26th-best (worst?) mark in the 32-team league.
The Patriots? They’ve given up the third-fewest yards against in the league, allowing just 1,417 on 368 carries. New England’s 3.9 yards against was tied for eighth in the NFL, but the 88.6 yards allowed per game ranked third.
When Bell faced New England in Week 7 he was held to just 81 yards on 21 carries, a 3.9 yards per carry average, his fourth-worst game this season in terms of total yards and per-carry average. Bell did add 10 receptions for 68 yards in that game, serving as a security blanket of sorts for Landry Jones, who spelled the injured Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers were mired in a funk at that point in the season, directly correlative to Bell’s struggles rushing the ball.
In Pittsburgh’s four consecutive losses this season — Weeks 6, 7, 9 and 10 that straddled the Week 8 bye — Bell rushed for no more than the 81 yards he got against New England and carried the ball just 62 times in losses to the Dolphins, Patriots, Ravens and Cowboys.
Since Week 11, though, Bell has no fewer than 20 carries, and no less than 23 touches in any game, eclipsing the 30 rush-or-catch mark five times in eight games.
In the Wild Card win over Miami, the Steelers ran 54 plays on offense, including 35 rushes and 18 pass attempts, and Bell had the ball for 31 of them. Against the Chiefs, the Steelers ran 66 offensive plays, including 31 pass attempts and 34 rushes, and Bell had the ball or was targeted on a pass 35 times.
That’s a usage rate, to borrow an NBA term, of 57.4 percent and 53.0 percent, respectively. By comparison in Davis’ first Super Bowl season (in which he played four games), his usage rate was around 48 percent.
Bell is far beyond that mark through two games, and he hasn’t really even been a factor in the passing game, yet.
Bell has just seven targets in the passing game this postseason, understandable when he’s carried the ball so much, but he had 75 catches on 94 targets in just 12 games this season, an average of 7.9 targets per game. It’s hard to figure Bell for another 150-plus rushing performance against the Patriots, but it’s not impossible to imagine him getting 30 or more touches. If he does, that will certainly be good for the Steelers. Maybe even record-setting.