PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers offense, as good as it is, can't help but feel the stinging loss of Le'Veon Bell, who according to ESPN's Dan Graziano faces a four-game suspension for missing at least one NFL drug test.
There is no question Pittsburgh is better with Bell. But the fact the fourth-year tailback could miss a second consecutive season opener because of drug-policy issues says he can't be trusted as a franchise pillar, and it undermines what the Steelers are trying to do on the field.
There are more details to surface, and perhaps Bell has a deeper explanation. He could have a valid reason for missing a test. Right now, it's hard to imagine the Steelers are ready to pay Bell, a 2017 free agent, as a top-shelf back.
But this is still a top-shelf offense without Bell. The Steelers proved that in 2015, when they played 11 games without him and still averaged 25.8 points per game.
In two games without Bell and Martavis Bryant, who's suspended for the entire 2016 season, the team averaged 454.5 yards and four touchdowns per outing. Six consecutive games of 30 or more points without Bell says the Steelers can find their rhythm at any time with a fearless, Golden State-like mentality to pull it from anywhere.
The free-agent signing of DeAngelo Williams last season looks more brilliant by the day. Williams will play for $2 million this year. In 10 games without Bell (counting Week 8 against Cincinnati, with Bell playing much of the first half), Williams averaged 17.8 carries, 80.1 yards and 1.1 touchdowns per game (11 TDs total). Williams is 33, but he's still eager to handle the workload, and the foot injury that kept him out of the playoffs is healed.
The Steelers also have committed more than $30 million per year to an offensive line that hopes to jump from good to great, and probably will.
The Steelers poured 6,327 yards on opponents while the "Big Three" -- Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell -- played a combined 58 snaps together.
Yes, Bell's all-around play, specifically as a receiver, gives the Steelers another dimension. He's unique in that area. He's like an elite slot receiver. With Bryant's big-play ability gone, Bell's pass-catching was supposed to help assuage those concerns in the short to intermediate areas while Big Ben goes deep to Brown, Ladarius Green and others.
When asked last training camp whether Bell's two-game suspension for a marijuana incident could help the team because other players must emerge, Roethlisberger quickly shot that down, saying under no circumstance is an offense better without a player like Bell.
Now Bell is gone. Again. No one questions Bell's ability on the field. But after two suspensions and two knee injuries, forecasting Bell's career in Pittsburgh just became exponentially more difficult.