PITTSBURGH -- Mike Tomlin infamously said before he had coached a game in Pittsburgh that the Steelers would run Willie Parker “until the wheels fall off.”
Both happened in 2007 when Parker went down in the penultimate game of the regular reason.
Parker was leading the NFL with 1,316 rushing yards when he broke his lower right leg against the St. Louis Rams. “Fast Willie” was never the same after returning from the injury, as he played just two more seasons with the Steelers before exiting the NFL in 2010, a couple of months before his 30th birthday.
Do the Steelers run a similar risk with Le’Veon Bell, who is on pace for around 300 carries and 90 receptions in his second NFL season? Probably not, at least in the short term, as the Steelers will lean heavily on Bell as they try to emerge from a pack of 7-5 teams in the AFC.
The offense has to continue to run through Bell, especially with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger struggling with his accuracy and with three of the Steelers’ final four games coming in cold-weather cities, including two in Pittsburgh. As Tomlin pointed out, Bell is a sturdy back who is built for a heavy workload.
Parker, meanwhile, was a smaller back, and the injury that compromised his blinding speed was more the result of an unfortunate hit than overuse. Losing a step because of the serious leg injury was the biggest reason why Parker flamed out after three straight 1,000-yard seasons.
The concern that the Steelers should have with Bell is not that he will suffer an injury over the next month, but how the pounding he takes adversely affects his productivity over the course of his career.
Those hits, after all, add up and start to chip away at a running back's speed.
The Steelers have to strike a balance of featuring Bell in their offense without eventually wearing him down to maximize the seasons at which he plays at a high level.
They thought they had done that when they signed LeGarrette Blount in March. But he pouted his way out of Pittsburgh, and the Steelers have no choice right now but to rely almost exclusively on Bell, who is too good of a blocker and receiver to come off the field on passing downs.
They can address their need for a back who can lighten Bell’s load in the offseason. That player will be found in free agency or the draft, if he is not already in the Steelers’ locker room.
Tomlin is fond of saying he “doesn’t live in his fears," and for now, that means riding Bell as far as the 6-foot-1, 225-pounder and the offense take the Steelers.