PITTSBURGH — Le'Veon Bell might be ready to head back to work. The Pittsburgh Steelers don't exactly look like they need him.
The star running back tweeted "Farewell Miami" on Monday, possibly indicating the end of his months-long standoff with the club. Bell hasn't been inside the Pittsburgh locker room since last January, opting to stay away rather than sign his one-year franchise tender. The two-time All-Pro has sacrificed half of the $14.4 million he's due this season but needs to report by Nov. 13 to make sure he accrues enough service time to reach free agency in March.
Bell's extended absence initially created a furor inside the locker room. Now, it seems almost like an afterthought. The Steelers (5-2-1) have ripped off four straight victories heading into Thursday night's visit from Carolina (6-2), relying heavily on James Conner — Bell's replacement — to surge into the lead in the AFC North.
Conner topped 100 yards rushing for a fourth straight week during a 23-16 victory over Baltimore on Sunday, and caught his first career touchdown pass when he took a short flip from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and bulled past Baltimore safety Eric Weddle at the pylon.
"He's showing that no challenge is too big for him, against the No. 1 defence or whoever it might be," Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said of Conner. "You know when you're so close to him, and he lowers his shoulder, and you see him get a couple yards, it's extremely motivating."
Conner is second in the league in all-purpose yards and touches behind Los Angeles Rams standout Todd Gurley and tied for fourth in total touchdowns. The second-year back hardly seems bothered by the heavy workload, saying he's built for it. So does his coach.
"I agree with James," Mike Tomlin said Monday when asked about Conner's personal assessment.
Tomlin smiled as he answered, mirroring the considerably lighter mood around his team these days. The problems that plagued the Steelers during September have vanished, though Tomlin is reticent to point to any one area where his team has improved.
"I'm not trying to look for specific areas, I just try to challenge these guys to get better every day," Tomlin said. "That's what we're focused on. I think that if we do that daily that will give us a chance to produce consistent performances that are on the rise. Not only in the second quarter (of the season) but as we continue through this journey."
It's a pattern that's become well established during Tomlin's 12 years on the job. The Steelers have been traditionally slow starters under his watch, then get it together as the days grow shorter.
Pittsburgh hasn't allowed more than 21 points during its four-game run and the secondary that was torched regularly in the opening month has settled in. Coty Sensabaugh has taken over for Artie Burns at the cornerback spot opposite Joe Haden and rookie safety Terrell Edmunds has filled in capably while veteran Morgan Burnett heals from a series of injuries that have slowed him since training camp.
The Steelers aren't exactly overwhelming opponents but considering the firepower on offence, overwhelming teams isn't required. Pittsburgh gave up at least 327 yards in each of its first four games. The Steelers haven't surrendered more than 324 yards over their last four.
"Our defence is working in the right direction," safety Sean Davis said. "We held the Ravens to 16 points ... and I feel like we're putting together winning performances. As long as the defence continues to do that, and with our offence playing the way they're playing, we're just going to continue riding the roller coaster. Our trajectory is high."
Considerably higher than it appeared while getting repeatedly torched during the opening month. Yet the job is still only halfway done. The schedule remains daunting. If Bell — whenever he shows up — can return to at least some semblance of the form that made him an All-Pro last season, Pittsburgh could be a tough out. If he can't, they like their chances anyway.
"It's still going to be a long ride," linebacker Bud Dupree said. "It was great that we got the win to get on top of the division again. We've got another game against the Bengals. We just need to be sure to dominate everywhere."
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