Steelers badly need Bell to emerge at RB

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said rookie running back Le'Veon Bell “perked up dramatically” late last week in practice.

Will his expected return to action have the same effect on a running game that has been one of the NFL’s least productive ones through the first three games of the season?

Tomlin did not commit to Bell starting against the Vikings, and the seventh-year coach said practice will dictate how much the latter plays in the international game that pits a pair of teams off to awful starts against one another.

Assuming Bell does not suffer a setback that would delay his return until after the bye, he can only help as the Steelers try to dig their way out of a very unSteelers-like 0-3 start.

Bell shined during training camp and looked well on his way to opening the season as the Steelers’ starting running back. Then knee and foot injuries sidelined the player who had never been hurt in college or high school.

The restart to Bell’s NFL career comes at a time when Felix Jones, who never fulfilled expectations in Dallas and was deemed expendable by Philadelphia, is atop the depth chart at running back.

Jones, whom the Steelers traded for on Aug. 23, is also the team’s leading rusher with 71 yards -- or seven less than Vikings running back Adrian Peterson had on his first carry of the season.

The former first-round pick has been a nice find by the Steelers and is averaging a healthy 4.2 yards per carry. But Jones is the bridge, albeit a dependable one, until Bell is ready to assume a workload befitting a starting NFL running back.

The Steelers will ease Bell back into action, and it is worth noting that he has only flashed potential to this point -- and had all of four carries in the preseason before going down with a mid-foot sprain.

But if Bell is as good as advertised he will again be given every opportunity to seize the job of feature back. And the Steelers badly need Bell to emerge as they have rushed for less than 100 yards in nine consecutive games dating back to last season.

Isaac Redman, who opened the season as the starting running, has slid to fourth on the depth chart. Jones and Jonathan Dwyer can help the running game but neither can carry it.

The Steelers drafted Bell in the second round last April to do just that.

And his NFL debut can’t come any sooner for a team that is averaging 51.7 rushing yards per game.