PITTSBURGH — Le’Veon Bell could potentially make some Pittsburgh Steelers history Sunday.
But will he even get the chance?
For all the Steelers have accomplished, a regular-season league rushing champion has been elusive.
Despite two Hall of Fame running backs and four first-team All-Pro backs over the past six decades, the Steelers haven’t had a season rushing champion since “Bullet” Bill Dudley had 604 yards over an 11-game season in 1946.
For much of this season, Bell appeared poised to end that 71-year drought.
But while Bell has spent most of the past two months in the NFL rushing-yardage lead, he enters Week 17 trailing the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley by 14 yards and Kansas City Chiefs rookie Kareem Hunt by 1 yard.
With the winless Cleveland Browns at home on the schedule, Bell would appear to be in good position to make a run at the rushing title.
But with the Steelers (12-3) a longshot to earn the AFC’s No. 1 seed — they need to win and have the New England Patriots lose at home to the New York Jets — coach Mike Tomlin has openly mused about resting some of his star players Sunday.
With each of Bell’s previous three seasons having ended with the three-time Pro Bowler injured, that might not be such a bad idea.
“I just want to win the Super Bowl,” Bell said Wednesday. “I can talk about the rushing title all year; I don’t really care about that. I just want to go out there and make sure that I am healthy, get into the playoffs and get into the Super Bowl.”
Bell — by far — leads the NFL in rushing attempts. With 321, he has 42 more than No. 2 Gurley. Counting his 85 receptions, Bell became only the second player since 2009 to have more than 400 combined rushing attempts/receptions.
Bell’s 2014 (hyperextended knee in the regular-season finale), 2015 (torn MCL in Week 8) and 2016 seasons (groin injury in the playoffs) ended with him on the sideline watching the Steelers.
Those experiences might have gained him a perspective that deems it wise to not push things for a regular-season game against a winless team — all for an individual accolade.
“I look at guys like (the NBA’s LeBron James), he never wins scoring titles, but he’s arguably the best player to ever play the game of basketball,” Bell said.
“So I don’t necessarily care about the rushing title or having the most yards (from scrimmage). I just want to make sure I go out there and do what it takes to help our team win games and Super Bowls.”
Bell is saying all the right things. Privately, though? Veteran guard Ramon Foster said a rushing title would “absolutely” mean something to Bell.
“But I’d rather have him in January and February,” Foster said. “He’s OK with that, too.”
Center Maurkice Pouncey similarly called the prospect of blocking for a league rushing champion “huge,” but didn’t think the coaching staff will let Bell even try.
“I don’t know if they’ll put him out there (Sunday),” Pouncey said.
There are other milestones in reach for Bell, too. Counting his 655 receiving yards, Bell is 54 yards shy of the 66th 2,000-yards from scrimmage season in NFL history and 4 yards from reaching 8,000 scrimmage yards over his first five seasons.
Earlier this season, he tied Eric Dickerson for the record for fewest games to 7,500 scrimmage yards (51).
Bell’s scrimmage yards per game (129.7) are actually well off last season’s pace of 157.0 set in 12 games after he was suspended for the first three weeks of the season and sat out the meaningless regular-season finale.
Bell’s yards per carry (4.0) and yards per catch (7.7) are the second-lowest of his career.
Not exactly ideal for a player who’s signed under the franchise tag in 2017 and is due for another spring of unrestricted free agency (barring another franchise tag used by the Steelers).
Then again, Bell’s production is down only based off the lofty standards he’s established.
“I feel like, it is what it is, you know?” Bell said of perhaps missing out on a rushing title. “For me personally, I just want to win Super Bowls.”